In the early 20th century while white mob violence destroyed Black entrepreneurship in Southern cities like Wilmington, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma, Black businesses thrived in Durham. Jim Crow-era regulations were in existence across North Carolina and the South but despite those regulations, Durham became a hub for Black-owned businesses and the Black middle-class thanks to initiatives by John Merrick, Dr. Aaron Moore, and C. C. Spaulding, known as the “Triumvirate”.
The three Black business leaders were leading North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the nation’s oldest Black-owned insurance company when they decided to move the company’s headquarters to Parrish Street in Durham in 1906. A year later, Merrick, R. B. Fitzgerald and W. G. Pearson founded the country’s first African-American bank — Mechanics and Farmers — in Durham.
The bank provided capital for many of the local businesses in Parrish Street. The bank’s policy was to provide “no large loans … to a few profiteers, but rather conservative sums to needy farmers and laborers.” Today, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and Mechanics and Farmers continue to operate.
Parrish Street in the early 20th century was a four-block district located adjacent to the city’s Main Street. Similar districts developed in other cities but Durham became famous nationally due to the innovative work of its businessmen that had turned the district into a mecca for Black-owned businesses. In fact, by 1950s, Parrish Street in Durham was being referred to as “the Black Wall Street.”
Data shows that between 1890 and 1910, there was a 200% increase in the population of Black residents in Durham. It was therefore not surprising that by 1920, Black-owned businesses and property had totaled more than $4 million (more than $51 million today).
It was during this same time that a residential neighborhood developed nearby known as Hayti. Durham’s Black businessmen continued to make strides with support from their White counterparts. Lawyers, physicians, masons, barbers, tailors, printers, and newspapers in Parrish Street served both the Black and White community. And as Durham continued to develop, it became known as the capital of the Black middle class in America.
Parrish Street in Durham attracted Black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois who praised the district through their letters and writing. DuBois visited in 1912 and cited the tolerant attitude of the city’s Whites, writing “it is precisely the opposite spirit in places like Atlanta.”
Urban renewal in the 1960s played a role in the downfall of Durham’s Black Wall Street including the affluent Hayti district. Some historians also believe that Jim Crow policies caused some African Americans to flee Parrish Street.
In 2004, a private-public partnership initiated the Parrish Street Project to commemorate the area’s history and its leaders with historic markers. Today, even though there is no “Black Wall Street” in Durham, the achievements of its entrepreneurs decades ago in the face of discrimination have created opportunities for others.
“If we think about what we consider to be Wall Street now, we think about capital. We think about access to capital. And that’s what Durham had in ways that many other places didn’t have,” Henry McKoy, the former assistant secretary of commerce for North Carolina, told North Carolina Public Radio.