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John Merrick: African American Business Leader from Durham

To celebrate Black History Month, Documenting the American South invites you to learn more about the lives of African Americans whose work changed the United States' social landscape. One such pioneer was North Carolina native John Merrick, founder of one of America's largest and most successful black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Merrick was born into slavery just before start of the Civil War but remained in the South after Emancipation. He worked in a variety of jobs until he found his niche in barbering and moved to Durham in 1880 to open his own shop. Merrick coupled the amazing success of this shop with community involvement and thus became a prominent businessman with powerful friends in both the white and black communities. These connections helped build the foundation for North Carolina Mutual, which Merrick founded in 1898.

His biographer, Robert McCants Andrews, describes Merrick as a social pioneer whose contributions worked both to shift white racist attitudes toward African Americans as well as to protect the African American community from stifling economic hardship and inequality. Read more about Merrick's life in the biography, John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch (1920).

John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch is part of DocSouth's "North Carolina Experience, Beginnings to 1940" Collection, which collects books, letters, reports, posters, artifacts, songs, and oral histories about North Carolina, its people, and its history. For more information about African American writers in North Carolina and across the South or about other topics related to Black History Month, visitors should also browse the "North American Slave Narratives", and "The Church in the Southern Black Community".

Jennifer L. Larson