Merrick, John Henry

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John Henry Merrick

Insurance agent, entrepreneur

John Henry Merrick is proof that slavery and the Jim Crow laws did not deter some African Americans from making a significant mark. Merrick was born a slave in Clinton, North Carolina, on September 7, 1859. Despite the limited education offered to African Americans at that time, he learned to read, write, and do arithmetic. His drive to excel was fueled by his quest for knowledge and his will to help his fellowmen. Merrick was the founder or co-founder of many businesses that served the African American communities in which he lived. Although Merrick is known as an insurance agent, his influence in the African American business community spans a wide range of organizations and firms in North Carolina.

Information on Merrick's family life is somewhat limited. Merrick lived with his mother, Martha, and a younger brother. His father was absent from his family. With the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and then the Union victory in the Civil War, Merrick at six years of age and his family were freed. When he was twelve, his family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where he gained employment in a brickyard as a helper. He was the breadwinner of the family, and he took his responsibilities seriously. When he was eighteen, the family of three—Merrick, his mother, and brother—moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. Merrick worked as a brick carrier and then as a brick mason, laying bricks in the construction of Shaw University's first building. He worked as a shoe shine boy in a barbershop where he also learned the trade of barbering.

Ventures into Barbershop Business

Merrick first worked as a barber, in Raleigh, for W. G. Otey. In 1880, he joined his dear friend and fellow barber, John Wright, who was migrating to Durham, North Carolina to venture in his own business, a barbershop. After six months, the thrifty Merrick bought shares in the barbershop that gave him the title of co-owner. The partnership between Merrick and Wright continued until 1892 when Merrick became the sole proprietor of the Merrick and Wright Barbershop after Wright sold him his shares and moved to Washington D.C. Merrick eventually owned about nine segregated shops. He accommodated African Americans and white Americans in different shops as he warily upheld the Jim Crow standards, but he exploited his interaction with white patrons, asking them to contribute to several benefit funds for his race.

In addition, Merrick developed Merrick's Dandruff Cure, which he marketed with catchy advertisements around 1890. In promoting this product, Merrick showed considerable knowledge of hair health and treatment.

As a frugal businessman, Merrick used his profits from the barbershops to buy real estate. First, in 1881 he bought property on Pettigrew Street, in the area that he called the Hayti. He became a master builder in this area, as he purchased other lands and built other houses for rent to the increasing African American population. Merrick did all the calculations and purchases, and hauled all the materials for his constructions. He became one of the largest landowners in the Hayti. Merrick helped with the Durham infrastructure, too. Later, Merrick expanded his real estate interest as he sought to protect his properties. He joined with Moore and Spaulding, two colleagues from an insurance company, to form the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Land Company that protected the lands of African Americans and the North Carolina Mutual properties.

Merrick and the Royal Knights of King David

Merrick, John Wright, W. A. Day, J. D. Morgan, and T. J. Jones, all African American businessmen, purchased the fraternal order lodge, the Royal Knights of King David, in 1883 from a Reverend Morris of Georgia. Instead of becoming just a part of a larger group, these African Americans bought the sole right to this order and established it under the principle of David versus Goliath—African Americans who were preparing to fight the giant of discriminatory and racist laws. This order became widespread as branches were opened in 1887 in Virginia and South Carolina, Florida in 1910, Georgia in 1916, and the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania in 1918. Merrick purchased the major portions of the order, and he remained the largest shareholder until his death. In 1918 the order had 21,000 members, $22,000 worth of bonds, and $40,000 in real estate. This purchase launched Merrick into the insurance field as the order provided insurance plans for its members.

Merrick realized inadequacies in the insurance that the lodge provided for African Americans, so in 1898, he founded the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company with Aaron McDuffie Moore, P. W. Dawkins, D. T Watson, W. G. Pearson, E. A. Johnson, and James E. Shepard who contributed $50 each to purchase the shares. Merrick was elected as the president and operations began in 1899. This company declined after six months, but its rebirth gave rise to the stallion insurance company North Carolina Mutual and Provident Life Insurance, which was later shortened to North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. Merrick and Moore were the only owners at the rebirth as they purchased all the shares from the others. The members traveled all over the state trying to get people to buy their policies, but this was not very successful. Advertisements in the Blade, an African American newspaper in Raleigh, brought in the most clients. Initially, the company sold only industrial policies, but it expanded rapidly to other policies. It also covered African American men and women equally, and both sexes were also equally employed in the company. In 1918, shortly before Merrick's death, the company grossed over $1 million. The company's large office building also served as a reservoir for other African American businesses.


Born in Clinton, North Carolina on September 7
Freed at six years of age when Civil War ends
Moves to Durham, North Carolina, and becomes co-owner of Merrick and Wright barbershop
Purchases his first property on Pettigrew Street in the section that he called the Hayti
Purchases the Royal Knights of David with other African Americans
Produces Merrick's Dandruff Cure
Owns barbershop after John Wright sells him all his shares
Co-founder of North Carolina Mutual
Co-founder of Bull City Drug Company
Dies in Durham, North Carolina on August 6

The Durham Negro Observer was a spin off from the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. The newspaper was reorganized and was later called the North Carolina Mutual, and was the sole African American newspaper for decades in that area. Merrick and some associates also founded Bull City Drug Company in 1908. This drug company established drugstores in the Hayti where most African Americans lived. Another undertaking was the short-lived Durham Textile Mill in 1914 that employed many African Americans. Merrick assisted in establishing the Lincoln Hospital in 1901. Merrick was also instrumental in the formation of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham that served the banking interests of African Americans. He later served as vice president and president. This bank grew to become the main source of capital for African Americans who wanted to purchase properties or to venture into new businesses.

Booker T. Washington lauded Merrick for his role in developing African American businesses. Washington invited Merrick to be a guest speaker at the Tuskegee Institute after he saw Merrick's success in Durham. Merrick exemplified Washington's ideals as he used "what he had" to develop organizations and businesses that would benefit African Americans. He also proved that African Americans contributed to their societies despite the barriers that the Jim Crow laws presented.

Wife and Family Life

Merrick married Martha Hunter, who was still living at the time of his death on August 6, 1919. Edward, Merrick's eldest son, followed in his father's footsteps; he was the treasurer of the North Carolina Mutual for many years. Moreover, his other two sons worked in the company for some time. Merrick also had at least two daughters. Merrick moved his family into a large house that he built on Pettigrew Street in 1881 and then to an even larger house on Fayetteville Street in 1887 where he remained until his death.

Merrick forged unity among his people and relationships between the races. He showed what collective action could do to the African American people. Merrick also promoted self-help in the African American society. The Jim Crow laws prompted many African Americans to develop businesses to help sustain their communities. The law of separate but equal forced African Americans to create their equal place in the society, which the law ironically denied them. Merrick made many African Americans equal in a time when the races were believed to be unequal. Merrick implemented and organized structures that benefited the social, economical, and physical well-being of many African Americans.



Andrews, R. McCants. John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch. New York: Seeman Press, 1920.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr., ed. African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

                                      Denise Jarrett