John MerrickSep 19th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Business
1859-1919 John Merrick began as a shoeshine boy, became a successful barber and barbershop owner, and ultimately built a regional financial empire in North Carolina. Merrick’s life insurance company grew to become the largest black-owned company in the United States.
Bootblack to Barbershop
Merrick was born on September 7, 1859, in a rural area in North Carolina not far from Raleigh and Durham. His mother, Martha, was a slave at the time of his birth; the identity of his father is unknown. Little is known about Merrick’s education or early years. The earliest recorded information indicates that at age 12, he worked as a laborer in a brickyard. By the time he was 18, Merrick had become a skilled mason, but saw little opportunity in the trade for advancing his future.
Merrick identified barbershops as a business with growth potential. At age 20, he quit work as a mason and took on the role of shoeshine boy in a Raleigh barbershop. In 1880, he was able to step up to the position of barber when a friend, John Wright, opened a shop of his own. The establishment was located in Durham, one of the state’s more hospitable places for African Americans. By the end of the first year, Merrick had developed a regular clientele and saved enough money to purchase a half interest in the business from Wright. By 1892, he had bought Wright out entirely.
By the end of the decade, Merrick parlayed his first shop into a string of nine barbershops in Durham and was selling his own successful line of hair care products. A key element in his success, and part of a pattern that would hold throughout his life, was his facility for using the social environment of a barbershop to create lasting connections. Two of Merrick’s clients in particular, tobacco businessmen J. S. Carr and Washington Duke, provided Merrick with invaluable information on the Durham real estate market. He put his barbershop profits into purchasing local properties, and eventually developed a business constructing homes for the African American rental market.
Real estate proved lucrative for Merrick, but his greatest success came in an entirely different area of business and from an entirely different direction. In 1893, a minister from Georgia arrived in Durham in search of backers for an insurance company he had helped establish and was attempting to shore up. The company had a grandiose name, the Royal Knights of King David, owing to the fraternal order that had initiated it, but its customers, income, and assets were less impressive. Merrick was intrigued with the business, however, and put together a group of investors to buy the company outright.
Merrick renamed the company, giving it the more professional moniker of North Carolina Mutual and Provident Insurance Company, but found that managing an insurance firm was more difficult than it initially appeared. For the first several years, the business struggled. Despite investment by a wealthy new partner, an African American doctor and entrepreneur named A.M. Moore, North Carolina Mutual was on the edge of bankruptcy as the turn of the century arrived. But Moore’s nephew, C.C. Spaulding, who had demonstrated considerable acumen and mettle in the grocery business, was brought in to run the company. He reorganized the business from top to bottom, shortened the name to North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, and implemented a fresh business model, hiring new agents and opening new offices throughout the state. The strategy worked: by the end of the decade, in 1910, the company was successful and profitable. In the years that followed, North Carolina Mutual grew to possess more assets than any other African American-owned business in North America.
As the insurance company expanded toward profitability, Merrick settled into the role of an active family man in Durham. He and his wife, Martha Hunter, had five children, one of whom, Edward, would later have a long career as North Carolina Mutual’s treasurer. The Merricks were prominent members of Durham society, and with his wife’s support and his increasingly successful businesses, Merrick involved himself in a number of regional financial pursuits with his partners.
Spaulding, Moore, and Merrick now had the resources to invest in other enterprises,including the construction of Durham’s first textile mill, which specialized in socks. Under the name of Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Land Company, the partners contracted to build a large portion of Durham’s black housing stock. The partners also opened a small, local chain of drugstores, and founded the Mechanics and Farmers Bank of Durham, which for years played a major, positive role funding black enterprises in the city. The three men even published a newspaper, the Durham Negro Observer, which catered to the African American community. Combined with North Carolina Mutual, these enterprises generated tremendous wealth, and Merrick and his associates were always mindful about giving back to the community. Most notably, they joined with the white, tobacco-wealthy Duke family of Durham in order to build a sorely needed hospital for African Americans. However, Merrick himself contracted an incurable cancer and died on August 6, 1919.
Merrick’s success in North Carolina made him a figure of national importance and influence. Theodore Roosevelt sought Merrick’s council on how to improve race relations in the country. Later, Merrick was offered an appointment as ambassador to Liberia, an honor he declined. At the time of his death, North Carolina Mutual had income approaching $2 million and assets exceeding $30 million, solidifying Merrick’s legacy as founder of what was then the largest black-owned business in the United States. Although other companies owned by African Americans outpaced North Carolina Mutual by the end of World War II, the company continues to operate as a major insurance concern.