John Merrick of Durham, Founder of North Carolina Mutual

On September 7, 1859, John Merrick was born into slavery in Sampson County. When he was 12-years-old, Merrick and his mother moved to Chapel Hill, where he worked in a brickyard and  she was a house servant.

When his mother remarried and moved away, Merrick remained in North Carolina and established himself as a brick mason in Raleigh, working on the construction of Shaw University. Economic fluctuations compelled him to take a second job as a bootblack in a barbershop.

Merrick soon became a barber and advanced through the ranks until he owned five barbershops in Durham by 1892, three for whites and two for blacks. He also helped establish the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal insurance company.

His experience with the Royal Knights led Merrick to launch what became the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, later the largest black-owned business in the United States.

He was president of Mutual Life until his death in 1919.

During World War II, the Liberty Ship John Merrick was launched by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington. It was the only ship built in Wilmington named for a black North Carolinian.

Related Topics: