Marker to honor Merrick

·7 min read

Jun. 22—A historical marker honoring a key Sampson County figure, who was born a slave and worked to build himself and his community up on his way to ultimately becoming a business magnate and philanthropist in Durham, will soon take its place in downtown Clinton.

The endeavor to see John Merrick recognized in such a way dates back many years, but began in earnest with a fundraising campaign last year. The initial Merrick marker fundraising endeavor was launched last year when North Carolina A&T State University Alumni Association's Sampson County chapter celebrated the second John Merrick Memorial Tribute in September 2021.

Those funds are still being compiled — a goal of $3,000 was set last year — and Larry Sutton said he is confident the funds will be together by the time the marker is ready to be dedicated, tentatively set for Merrick's birth date in September, pending approval.

"For the last decade or two, I have been trying to get John Merrick's name out in the public arena," Sutton stated. "We are trying to get the man's birthplace recognized because he has had a profound impact on North Carolina's business since the 1880s, down through his death in 1919. Many of his businesses are still today operating — among them, his eternal monument, the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham. It is still a thriving business today."

On Sept. 7, 1859 John H. Merrick was born into slavery, south of Clinton, in the Taylors Bridge Township.

"We feel like John Merrick deserves a marker here in his hometown area recognizing and honoring his legacy," Sutton stated, who then quoted James B. Duke's words about Merrick. "The name of Merrick deserves to live and be a constant call to others to seek success and use success for the good of mankind. We feel like the name of John Merrick deserves to live on in his hometown of Clinton, We hope to have a marker established here, with your permission, on the Vance Street Park area."

Councilwoman Wanda Corbett said Sutton's speech took her back to Social Studies in high school, and credited him with his thirst for knowledge and his efforts to impart that to others.

"I think Vance Street being in our business district ... I think it is very befitting for that (marker) to be in our business district," said Corbett.

Merrick received no formal schooling, but learned to read and write in a Reconstruction school. By hard work and simple faith, Merrick rose in the world to organize the largest insurance company owned an operated entirely by African-Americans. When Merrick was 12, he and his family relocated to Chapel Hill where he got a job in a brickyard providing support for his family. At the age of 18, Merrick moved to Raleigh where he became a brick mason and worked on the construction of Shaw University.

While in Raleigh, he became a bootblack in a barbershop, and in this same shop he learned the barber's trade. In 1880 his friend, John Wright, asked Merrick to join him in relocating to Durham to start a new barbershop business. After six months Merrick bought shares in the barbershop and it was renamed Wright and Merrick. In 1892 Wright sold his shares to Merrick making him sole proprietor.

Eventually, Merrick owned eight barbershops in Durham. Responding to the prevailing racial segregation patterns, Merrick owned shops that catered exclusively to Black and white customers. As his business flourished, Merrick began to buy land and build rental houses.

"Perhaps, no one person has ever had a greater commitment to serving his community than John Merrick," Sutton has said. "After moving to Durham and using profits from his barbershop businesses, Merrick began to buy land and invest in real estate, building affordable houses for rent. As he became more successful in his own personal business ventures, Merrick became a leader in civic affairs with the Black community in Durham, a match made in heaven."

In those days, life insurance was still a relatively new concept and often was either unavailable or unaffordable to African-Americans. In 1883, Merrick joined several other local businessmen to purchase the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal lodge that provided inexpensive insurance policies to lodge members and promoted black self-reliance. Often this was the only insurance available to coloreds in the Durham area. Over the next 25 years, the lodge and its insurance business expanded across six Southeastern states. By the time of his death in 1919, Merrick was the largest shareholder in the lodge's insurance business.

Merrick is most remembered, however, as one of the founders of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, which eventually became the largest Black-owned insurance company in the United States. Realizing the limitations of lodge-sponsored insurance, Merrick joined with several others in 1898 to establish the company.

Their mission was to "relieve distress amongst poverty-stricken segment of Durham's Negro population." Each founder initially contributed $50 to purchase shares and Merrick was selected as the first company president. By 1918, North Carolina Mutual had over $1 million in insurance in force and was at that point the largest Black-owned insurance firm in the nation. At one time it was the largest and richest African-American company in the world.

Concerned with more than the economic vitality of Durham, Merrick also participated in efforts to improve the health of Durham's Black population. In 1901, he served as the first President of the Board of Trustees for the Lincoln Hospital, the first freestanding black hospital in Durham. Merrick was credited with obtaining the necessary funding from the wealthy Duke family to build the hospital. Merrick had built relationships with the Duke brothers who regularly patronized his barbershop. The hospital housed a nursing school that was critical in serving the Black population during the Influenza epidemic in 1918.

In 1907, Merrick and others established the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the first African-American bank in Durham and one of a few to be found in the state. Many white banks refused to loan money to Blacks; therefore, a bank for Blacks was essential for Black business growth. During the early to mid-twentieth century, Black banks existed in every Southern city with a successful middle-class black population.

In 1908, no drug stores were conveniently located near Durham's African-American neighborhoods or businesses. To better meet the pharmaceutical needs of a growing Black population, John Merrick and five others founded the Bull City Drug Company, which included two stores.

In addition to his duties at North Carolina Mutual Life, Merrick also helped solve numerous problems within the Black community of Durham. As African Americans acquired property in Durham, many wanted to purchase property insurance, yet, insurance regulations prevented North Carolina Mutual Life from offering real estate insurance. Merrick persuaded his business partners, A.M. Moore and C.C. Spaulding, to join him in forming a company that offered such a product in Durham. On Dec. 8, 1910, the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company was incorporated. Together these three men participated in numerous local ventures, and were often referred to as "The Triangle" throughout the business community.

The education of Black children and young adults was a priority for John Merrick. In addition to supporting rural schools and the College for Blacks in Durham (now known as North Carolina Central), Merrick's philanthropy helped open a public library on Fayetteville Street intended to serve the needs of Black children of the community.

Merrick died in August of 1919 at the age of 60.

"I feel this is a good thing for us to remember and honor John Merrick," said Sutton, "and in the meantime, I hope it will help bring us together as a community to celebrate and share in these namesakes who have come from Clinton and done well, and should be honored and remembered."

The Council unanimously voted that the marker be placed at Vance Street Park, with the exact location to be determined.