Spaulding, Charles Clinton 1874–1952
Charles Clinton Spaulding 1874–1952
Charles Clinton Spaulding was the United States’ preeminent black businessman of the early twentieth century. Starting as a dishwasher, he went on to become president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, building it into the largest all-black business enterprise in the world at the time of his death. A believer in the self-help philosophy espoused by social activist Booker T. Washington, Spaulding served as a living embodiment of the American belief in “rags to riches.”
To whites, Spaulding’s business success demonstrated the economic possibilities available for blacks in the segregated “New South.” For blacks, he was a symbolic role model nationwide and the leading advocate of racial progress through economic success. He became the most influential black civic leader in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina, working with the white business establishment while promoting black political participation to improve civil rights and economic opportunity for African Americans.
Spaulding was born on a farm in 1872. His birthplace, Columbus County in southeastern North Carolina, was the home of a close-knit community of free blacks who had settled there in the early nineteenth century. His father, Benjamin Mclver Spaulding, was a hardworking, successful independent farmer as well as blacksmith and artisan who forged plows and farm implements and built his own furniture. During Reconstruction—the process of rebuilding the U.S. South after the Civil War—he served as the county sheriff.
Young Charles grew up in an environment centered around religion and hard work. His father assigned duties and chores to all his children at a young age. “All I have had to do was to try to follow the pattern he developed,” Spaulding wrote about his later success in the American Magazine. As the second son in an immediate family of ten children, Charles’s work at home took precedence over his attendance at the local school, and his education was delayed.
In 1894, when Spaulding was 20 years old, he moved to Durham, North Carolina, to further his education under the care of his uncle, Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore. While completing grade school, he worked in a series of menial jobs, progressing from dishwasher to bellhop, waiter, and then office boy for a white attorney. After graduating in 1898, he became clerk and manager of a cooperative black-owned grocery store. The store failed, but Spaulding’s zeal and determination had impressed two of Durham’s leading black citizens: his uncle,
Born Charles Clinton Spaulding, August 1, 1874, near Clarkton, NC; died August 1, 1952, in Durham, NC; son of Benjamin Mclver (a farmer, blacksmith, and artisan) and Margaret Ann Virginia (Moore) Spaulding; married Fannie Jones, September 26, 1900 (died 1919); married Charlotte Beatrice Stevens Gardner, January 3, 1920; children: (first marriage) three sons, one daughter. Religion: Baptist.
Clerk and manager of a black-owned cooperative grocery store in Durham, NC, 1898; North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association (name changed to North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, 1919), Durham, general manager, 1900-19, secretary-treasurer, 1919-22, president, 1923-52; Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Durham, president, 1922-52; Mutual Building and Loan Association, Durham, president, 1922-52; Bankers Fire Insurance Company, Durham, vice president and chairman of the executive committee, 1922-52. Served on board of trustees of Howard University, North Carolina College for Negroes, Shaw University, Oxford (NC) Colored Orphanage, White Rock Baptist Church, Stanford L. Warren Colored Library, Lincoln Hospital, and John F. Slater Fund.
Member: Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (chairman), National Negro Insurance Association (president), National Negro Business League, United Negro College Fund (vice-president), American Bible Society, National Committee of the Urban League, Boy Scouts of America (national council), Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation (secretary-treasurer), New York Chamber of Commerce, Durham Chamber of Commerce, Southern Education Foundation.
Awards: Harmon Foundation Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Business, 1926; honorary degrees from Atlanta University, Shaw University, and Tuskegee Institute.
the town’s only black physician, and John Merrick, its principal barber and black businessman.
In 1898 Merrick, Moore, and five other local blacks each pledged $50 to form a black insurance company similar to ones organized in Richmond, Virginia, a few years earlier. The men firmly believed in the concept of black self-help, advocating racial solidarity and the creation of black businesses as the best means toward economic progress in a segregated society. Called the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, the fledgling firm shared office space with Dr. Moore. The self-proclaimed “company with a soul and a service” floundered at first because neither its president, Merrick, nor its treasurer and medical director, Moore, had enough free time to devote to management.
The men soon looked to Spaulding for help. Appointed general manager in 1900, his dedication, energy, optimism, and entrepreneurial genius infused the firm with new life. Because he was the only full-time employee, he had to serve many roles. Arriving early in the morning, he became the janitor, cleaning up the office. Then he switched to agent, selling policies during the day. Finally, in the evening, he assumed the role of manager, assessing the company’s progress and planning future business strategy.
Working on commission, Spaulding was indefatigable, hawking insurance policies on street corners, streetcars, and throughout the black community. When the company paid its first death claims, he was out on the streets waving copies of the receipts as evidence of the firm’s solvency and trustfulness. Still, the firm’s first years were difficult. On several occasions Merrick and Moore had to use their own personal funds to meet company expenses and pay off claims by policyholders. They bought out the other five founders in 1901 simply by repaying their original investment.
Spaulding’s hard work began to pay off in the first years of the new century. Handsome, poised, impeccably dressed, polite, and businesslike, this paradigm of propriety slowly was winning black trust. While expanding and developing the insurance market among blacks, he simultaneously recruited and inspired a new group of part-time agents, usually schoolteachers and ministers. By December of 1902 North Carolina Mutual had agents in 50 towns throughout the state.
The next year, Spaulding hired his first full-time agents and three full-time clerks, rented more office space, and bought a typewriter and a safe. He started a monthly company newspaper, reporting news of the black community alongside personal testimonials from satisfied policyholders as to the value of insurance. At the same time he advertised extensively, putting the North Carolina Mutual name on everything from calendars to medical thermometers and cuspidors. Merrick and Moore rewarded him with a weekly salary of $15. Business increased tremendously in 1904. The company expanded into South Carolina and began offering more types of policies. The number of policyholders doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. Spaulding’s employers gave him greater managerial independence and increased his salary the following year to $75 a month.
The company moved to a new two-story brick building on Parrish Street in 1906, contiguous to the heart of Durham’s white business district. Now it rented office space to Dr. Moore and hired on a retainer basis Winston and Bryant, the prominent white law firm where Spaulding had labored as an office boy. That same year North Carolina Mutual began its long-term practice of buying out other failing black insurance companies, gaining new policyholders while maintaining public confidence in black insurance firms. By January of 1907 more than 100,000 policyholders were enrolled, making it the largest black insurance company in the world.
The leadership of Merrick, Moore, and Spaulding, as well as the socioeconomic climate of Durham, aided the company’s success. All three members of the “Triumvirate” possessed complementary qualities. Merrick, the only ex-slave, retained a deferential, antebellum manner in dealing with Durham’s white business leaders. A shrewd businessman with six successful segregated barbershops—three for whites and three for blacks—and prosperous real estate and rental holdings, he had access to white bankers and their capital.
Dr. Moore was a physician, philosopher, and philanthropist. He founded Lincoln Hospital in 1901 and the Colored Library in 1913 to provide Durham’s black citizens with advanced medical care and the opportunity for educational enhancement. Deeply religious, his lifelong commitment to the White Rock Baptist Church and the black community insured the company’s racial legitimacy. Spaulding represented the younger generation. He provided the boundless energy, irrepressible optimism, and dedication to hard work that drove the company to success. Along the way he picked up Merrick’s business savvy and social skills as well as Moore’s sense of religion, mission, and racial commitment.
Durham, a North Carolina piedmont town, had no antebellum plantation tradition. Instead, its newfound twentieth century prosperity was built on the booming textile mills and tobacco factories that symbolized the industrialized New South. The continual demand for workers provided steady black employment in the tobacco factories. Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, writing in the 1920s, captured the town’s ambience: “Durham offers none of the color and creative life we find among Negroes in New York City. It is not a place where men write and dream; but a place where black men calculate and work.” It was also a town that provided the steady paychecks to purchase insurance policies.
By 1908 the company had purchased additional lots near its headquarters, adding to its office space and forming a black business complex with a barber shop, drugstore, tailor, and newspaper. A separate black economy was blooming in Durham, and it began with the subsidiary businesses of the North Carolina Mutual, including the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, a real estate company, and in 1910 the Durham Textile Mill. Company funds supported black newspapers, churches, Lincoln Hospital, the black library, and a baseball team.
Spaulding continued the expansion, sending Edward Merrick, son of the president, to open a Georgia office in 1911. Family ties remained strong at North Carolina Mutual, with many employees coming from the extended kinship ties of Columbus County. Spaulding married John Merrick’s half-sister, Fannie Jones, in 1900, and they had four children. She died in 1919, and he remarried the following year.
In 1916 Spaulding decided to follow the great migration of blacks northward by expanding into Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Four years later he had nearly 1,100 employees and agents selling insurance in eleven states and the District of Columbia. Talented black professionals, many college educated, moved to Durham from other states to work for the company. When Merrick died in 1919, Dr. Moore assumed the presidency, Spaulding became secretary-treasurer, and the firm took a new name—the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Two years later blacks from throughout the country came to dedicate its new home office, an ultramodern, six-story, marble-trimmed testament to black progress. This second tallest building in Durham was located in the white business district.
Spaulding became president in 1923 after Dr. Moore’s death. By the following year he had created another series of interrelated black firms, including the Bankers Fire Insurance Company, the Mutual Building and Loan Association, the Mortgage Company of Durham, and the National Negro Finance Corporation. But the continued expansion was causing financial problems, largely due to the great difficulty and expense of servicing the South’s heavily rural population. Spaulding retrenched in 1926, selling the company’s businesses in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida, while reducing his overall staff by 18 percent. By cutting expenses, North Carolina Mutual was in a better position than most to weather the nationwide economic depression of the 1930s. The company’s survival, particularly in light of the failure of so many other black insurance firms, only added to Spaulding’s mystique.
As the preeminent black businessman of his era, Spaulding strived to follow the example of his mentor, Booker T. Washington. He firmly believed the best way to achieve equality in civil rights was through economic progress and business success. To that end, he devoted a great deal of effort toward preserving Washington’s National Negro Business League after its founder’s death in 1915 and organized the National Negro Insurance Association in 1921, becoming president of both groups.
Spaulding was convinced that the future uplift of the black race depended on individual effort and moral character. He viewed himself and all his employees as representatives of their race to the white world. He fully realized the important role that the North Carolina Mutual and its president played as models and symbols to both the black and white communities of Durham and the nation. His administrative style was paternalistic, stressing punctuality while warning his employees against the evils of gambling, drinking, and falling in debt. When his Buick rolled up to the front door of his six-story office building in the middle of the white business district six mornings a week, it stirred pride among his fellow blacks while justifying the segregated New South to southern whites by demonstrating the economic opportunities available to all.
Spaulding also took seriously the community responsibilities his position entailed. Deeply religious, he dominated affairs at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church. He also was chairman of the board at the city’s black hospital. His contacts with the white business community and philanthropists and his ability to deliver favors and funding to the black community only enhanced his influence.
Despite his faith in advancement through economic progress, Spaulding became increasingly involved in politics during the 1930s. He was appointed to North Carolina’s Council on Unemployment and Relief and President Hoover’s Federal Relief Committee. As national chairman of the Urban League’s Emergency Advisory Council, he enlisted black support for New Deal agencies, gaining some influence in Washington to lobby against discrimination in federal programs and obtain some jobs for blacks.
More important was Spaulding’s involvement on a local level. In 1935 he helped form and became chairman of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, an organization that openly sought to empower blacks politically. By concentrating on voter registration and turnout, it became the most potent black political force in Durham, getting parks, playgrounds, and pools built in the black community and pressuring the city into hiring black policemen. Spaulding became the liaison between both communities, espousing cooperation while pressing for change, all the time keeping tempers from becoming too heated. When Durham’s blacks took to the streets the night Joe Louis became the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1937, threatening hostility to whites, he drove through town urging and then restoring calm.
Spaulding’s business and personal triumphs continued into the middle of the century. North Carolina Mutual expanded into Pennsylvania in 1938. During World War II, Spaulding became a leading salesman of war bonds to the black community. Stories in Ebony, the Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest made “Mr. Negro Business” a national hero, and he began spending much of his time answering fan mail. During the postwar years, he became a black “Cold Warrior,” upholding America and denouncing communism. His 1948 article in the American Magazine, praising America for its economic opportunity for all, was reprinted in several languages.
When Spaulding died of heart failure on his 78th birthday in 1952, North Carolina Mutual had assets of more than $37 million and more than $179 million worth of insurance policies in force. Along with its many affiliates, including the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the Mutual Building and Loan Association, and the Bankers Fire Insurance Company, it was the largest black business enterprise in the world. Fittingly, his funeral was the largest in Durham’s history, and the mayor proclaimed an unprecedented day of respect to his memory. Though it was widely assumed he died a millionaire, Spaulding was always an employee, never an owner, of North Carolina Mutual. His estate was valued under $200,000.
The company’s successes continued after Spaulding’s death. North Carolina Mutual carried on its policy of expanding into states with large black populations by moving into New Jersey in 1953. By the 1960s it moved into California, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. The dedication of its new home office in 1966 was a five-day affair highlighted by the attendance of U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Spaulding’s life and ideology symbolized the era between the accommodationist, self-help racial policies of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King’s overt protests demanding racial equality. He dedicated his life to hard work and business success, hoping to effect social change through his own example. But while he continued this course, he also began turning to politics and political empowerment as a means to spur racial equality a little more quickly.
“Is the Negro Meeting the Test of Business?” Journal of Negro History, January 1933.
“Business in Negro Durham,” Southern Workman, December 1937.
“Business Is My Business,” Negro Digest, February 1943.
“What This Country Means to Me,” American Magazine, December 1948.
Bardolph, Richard, The Negro Vanguard, Vintage Books, 1961.
Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the 20th Century, University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Harris, Abram L, The Negro as Capitalist, American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 1936.
Hughes, Langston, Famous American Negroes, Dodd, Mead, 1954.
Locke, Alain, editor, The New Negro, Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.
Weare, Walter, Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Duke University Press, 1993.
Journal of Negro History, October 1952, pp. 477-80.
Saturday Evening Post, March 27, 1943, p. 15.
Time, August 11, 1952, p. 21.
—James J. Podesta
Charles Clinton Spaulding
Charles Clinton Spaulding
Business executive Charles Clinton Spaulding (1874-1952) was one of the most prominent and influential African American entrepreneurs of the 20th century, achieving success in both the banking and insurance professions. He was president of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, the largest African American business in the country; a leading proponent of the Negro Business Movement of the period; and a civic and social leader in the tradition of Booker T. Washington.
Charles Clinton Spaulding, the third of fourteen children, was born on a farm near Whiteville in Columbus County, North Carolina, in 1874. His parents, Benjamin Mclver and Margaret Moore Spaulding, were prosperous landowners of free ancestry who were respected leaders of the community. Young Spaulding spent his early years working on the family farm and exhausting the limited possibilities for education in his rural community.
In the mid 1890s he made his way to Durham to join his uncle, Aaron McDuffie Moore, a practicing physician, and to avail himself of the city's greater educational opportunities. Here he enrolled in the Whitted School, from which he graduated in 1898 at the age of 23 with what was then considered a high school diploma. Although he continued self-education throughout his life and enjoyed the mentorship of his uncle, it was from this base of formal education and family background that Spaulding rose from farm worker to a position of regional and national prominence.
Activities as a Businessman
Spaulding's first job following graduation was as manager of a grocery concern in which 25 African American men had invested $10 each. The venture was unsuccessful, however, and Spaulding was left with bare shelves and $300 indebtedness from the insolvent business. Following this failure he entered the field of insurance, a newly-emerging profession among African Americans. In 1899 he became general manager of the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, a small industrial assessment organization founded by Durham barber John Merrick and Spaulding's uncle Aaron Moore. As the sole employee, Spaulding served also as promoter, agent, clerk, bookkeeper, office boy, and janitor. In 1909 the firm achieved the status of old line legal reserve life insurance company and changed its name to North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Spaulding succeeded to the presidency of the company in 1923 and was for many years the pivotal figure in an organization that, rising from a situation where the company in 1899 did not have enough money on hand to pay its first death claim, came to hold distinction as the largest African American business in the country.
By 1921 Spaulding had also assumed leadership of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank and the Mutual Building and Loan Association, two organizations founded in Durham by the organizers of North Carolina Mutual. In addition, he was vice president of the Bankers Fire Insurance Company and the Southern Fidelity Mutual Insurance Company. These enterprises made Durham one of the leading centers of African American business achievement in the first half of the 20th century and, in large measure, provided the financial sustenance for the early economic growth of African Americans in North Carolina and the region. In his capacity as executive of these enterprises, Spaulding sought to map a program of social service that stretched beyond the routine functions of a business corporation to include the expansion of home ownership, business growth, and general race uplift.
Spaulding was widely involved in the larger arena of African American business beyond Durham. He belonged to the inner circle of the National Negro Business League, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900, serving as secretary-treasurer as well as chairman of the executive committee during the 1920s. Similarly, he provided leadership in the National Negro Insurance Association and the National Negro Bankers Association. In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the management and direction of business activities, Spaulding was awarded the Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement in Business in 1926. In his lifetime numerous other awards, honors, and honorary degrees also accrued to Spaulding in recognition of his success in the fields of life insurance and finance and for his contribution to the progress of African Americans in their struggle for economic and civic emancipation.
Follows Booker Washington's Economic Philosophy
It was said that Spaulding was the greatest living exponent of the economic philosophy popularized by Booker T. Washington. Like Washington, Spaulding believed in harmonious racial understanding and tolerance, and he praised the opportunities available to African Americans in the South. He also extolled the idea that integrity, character, and achievement would equate eventually with acceptance and citizenship for African Americans. Spaulding viewed business and economic success, along with intelligence, vision, and cooperation, as powerful weapons in the battle to destroy race prejudice in America. He believed, particularly, that African Americans could surmount racial prejudice and strengthen their positions in society by evidencing success in the financial and business areas. He asked only that equal opportunities be afforded.
Through his work in civic, educational, and social organizations, he sought to foster opportunities for African Americans. He served on a number of boards of trustees of African American colleges and universities, including Howard, Shaw, and North Carolina College. He was the first African American elected to the board of the Slater Fund and was the regional broker for the Rosenwald Fund. His views on education, race, and social issues impacting opportunity were disseminated also through his membership on the boards of the Southern Educational Foundation and the North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation.
At the national level, Spaulding's activities with the National Urban League and the New Deal were directed at broadening opportunities as well. He was appointed national chairman of the Emergency Advisory Council of the Urban League, a body organized to enlist support for the New Deal among African Americans. He used this position and his national contacts to advance opportunities for African Americans in the region. His work in the New Deal earned him recognition as the leading Democrat in North Carolina. Spaulding married twice and raised four children. He died in Durham on August 1, 1952, his 78th birthday.
An excellent scholarly essay on Spaulding has been written by Walter Weare in Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982), edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier. A good deal of information on Spaulding is also available in Weare's study of North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, titled Black Business in the New South (1973). Short biographical sketches may be found in several other sources: Edgar A. Toppins, Biographies of Notable Black Americans (1961); Negro History Bulletin (Vol. XVI); and Black Enterprise (Vol. VI). Spaulding's own views on several issues can be found in "50 Years of Progress," a series published by the Pittsburgh Courier (1950). □