John Merrick was a professional businessman who founded North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which was the largest black-owned insurance company in the United States at the time of his death. He also helped to establish Lincoln Hospital, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and North Carolina Central University.
Merrick was born in a rural area of North Carolina near Raleigh and Durham in 1859. Merrick began working as a laborer in a brickyard at the age of 12, and by the age of 18, he had advanced to the level of skilled mason. However, he believed that as a mason, he would be unable to achieve his objectives.
Fortunately, these early positions provided him with the necessary skills to eventually succeed as a barbershop owner, business mogul, and philanthropist.
Merrick had a large number of clients during his first year as a barber and had saved enough money to purchase his business partner’s share of the company. Merrick later invested in real estate and was very successful; however, his greatest success came with the backing of an insurance company that he co-founded with several other African Americans. He helped found the company and later bought it out completely, renaming it “North Carolina Mutual and Provident Insurance Company.”
The business was a huge success, selling nearly $5 million in insurance in many southern states across America. At the time, the company was the “world’s largest Negro business,” making Merrick one of the most successful black men of his generation. Merrick had a lot of success in North Carolina, not just in the insurance industry, but also in other small businesses where he invested. He was even offered the position of ambassador to Liberia, but he declined.
Merrick invested his professional success in the local Black community to provide them with services and opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. He made certain that every company he helped establish provided a necessary service for Durham’s African Americans, especially since many of these services would have been completely inaccessible to them otherwise.
Merrick established the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company to provide real estate insurance to local blacks. He opened a drug store for people of color to provide medicine and other pharmaceutical products that they would not have otherwise been able to obtain. Merrick worked to establish a public library for African American children in Durham. Merrick’s efforts and influence resulted in the formation of a new Black middle class in Durham.
North Carolina Mutual had income approaching $2 million and assets exceeding $30 million at the time of his death in 1919. At the time, the company was the largest black-owned business in the United States.