John Merrick was a professional businessman who founded North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company; at his death, this organization was the largest black-owned insurance company in the U.S. He was also instrumental in the founding of Lincoln Hospital, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and North Carolina Central University.
Merrick was born in 1859 in a rural area in North Carolina not too far from Raleigh and Durham. At the age of 12, Merrick worked as a laborer in a brickyard, and by the time he was 18, he had become a skilled mason. However, he felt that as a mason he could not reach his goals. Fortunately, these early positions gave him the essential skills to eventually succeed as a barbershop entrepreneur, a business mogul and a philanthropist.
During Merrick’s first year as a barber, he built up a high number of clients and had saved enough money to purchase his business partner’s share in the company. Merrick later invested in real estate and had great success; however his greatest success came with the backing of an insurance company with several other African Americans. He helped establish the company, and later purchased the organization outright and changed the name to “North Carolina Mutual and Provident Insurance Company.”
The enterprise was hugely successful, having sold almost $5 million worth of insurance in many southern states across America. At the time, the company became the “world’s largest Negro business,” which made Merrick one of the most successful black men of that era. Merrick experienced much success in North Carolina, not just in the insurance industry, but with other small businesses in which he invested. He was even offered an appointment as ambassador to Liberia, but he declined the honor.
Merrick channeled his professional success into the local Black community in order to provide them with services and opportunities they otherwise would have lacked. He ensured that every company he helped establish provided a necessary service for the African Americans of Durham, especially since many of these services would have been completely inaccessible to them otherwise.. Merrick founded the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company in order to provide local blacks with real estate insurance. He started a drug store for people of color to provide medicine and other pharmaceutical products that they would have not had access to. Merrick worked to provide a space for a public library for Durham’s African American children. Due to Merrick’s efforts and influence, a new Black middle class emerged within Durham.
At the time of his death in 1919, North Carolina Mutual had income approaching $2 million and assets exceeding $30 million. The business was then known as the largest black-owned business in the United States.