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R. McCants Andrews (Robert McCants)
John Merrick. A Biographical Sketch
[Durham, N.C.: Press of the Seeman Printery, 1920].


Robert McCants Andrews (c. 1891-1932) was born in South Carolina to Amos J. Andrews and Emma A. McCants. Andrews graduated from Howard University in 1915 and attended Harvard Law School until 1919. He was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1921 and practiced in Durham, probably as an attorney for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Not much is known about Andrews's youth or education, but while in Durham he was an advocate for civil rights, joining several other black leaders from Durham in a push to register African Americans to vote. In 1932, at age 41, Andrews died of peritonitis at Lincoln Hospital in Durham. He was buried in Sumter, South Carolina.

John Merrick, a prominent African American businessman, died in 1919, and Andrews's biography of him, which appeared the following year, may have been published or commissioned by North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance to commemorate him. This biography, according to Andrews's opening "apologia," aims not only to recount Merrick's life but also to interpret his actions and the conditions that shaped him. Throughout the work, Andrews provides background on Durham's changing political and social landscape as the city grew from a war-ravaged tobacco town to an industrial hub and home to the United States' largest and most successful black business, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. In addition, the work provides brief biographical sketches of Merrick's long-time partners, Aaron M. Moore (d. 1923) and Charles C. Spaulding (d.1952). Andrews calls these three men "the triangle," comparable in brilliance to the three stars of a constellation.

Merrick was born on December 7, 1859, to a slave mother in Clinton, North Carolina, and worked beginning at age 12 in a brickyard in Chapel Hill. He also aided in the construction of Shaw University and later became first a boot-black and then a barber at W.G. Otey's shop in Raleigh. In 1880, after he married and had a daughter, Merrick moved his family to Durham to open a new barber shop with his partner, John Wright, with whom he worked in Raleigh. Merrick and Wright's venture was profitable, so they purchased adjoining lots and built homes on Pettigrew Street in a section of Durham whites termed "Hayti" to connote its predominantly African American population. By 1887, Merrick owned more land as well as rental property and moved his expanding family into a "pretentious" home on Fayetteville Road. He also developed and marketed an anti-dandruff tonic. Wright sold his share of their business to Merrick and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1892, but the business continued to grow to five shops and served such distinguished patrons as William Jennings Bryan. Andrews claims that the barber shop became Merrick's college, for he learned much from his conversations with his patrons, who included traveling professors and important businessmen, and as their barber, Merrick was privy to these men's consul and earned their trust as well as their friendship.

Andrews also chronicles Merrick's community involvement. While still maintaining his successful business, Merrick helped acquire and organize Durham's Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal organization with insurance interests, and in 1898 he founded the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, the basis of his most successful venture. He also served as president of Lincoln Hospital and helped establish Durham's first African American bank and drug store. According to Andrews, Merrick and Moore had only one unsuccessful project, the Durham Textile Mill, which fell victim to unfortunate coincidences and inexperienced management, but which closed without financial loss.

Early on, it appeared as if the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association might suffer the same fate, for Andrews reports that business was slow and investors became anxious. Andrews cites this critical moment as the "triangle's" official beginning, for Moore and Merrick, two of the original investors, decided to dissolve the current company and re-organize with only three major players, themselves and Spaulding, who was a grocer at the time. Merrick and Moore then continued to run the company without pay while Spaulding worked as general manager and traveled around selling insurance and collecting dues on commission. Andrews also shares anecdotes about the infant company's triumphs and struggles, such as a 1914 fire that destroyed many of the company's early records, and he notes that the men and their families were close companions, with strong relationships both in and out of the office.

Andrews goes on to speculate about factors that may have contributed to the success of the North Carolina Mutual Life and Provident Association, factors that include honest and fair policies, speedy and thorough prosecution of embezzlers, and innovative advertising techniques. He points out that 1905 was a turning point for the company as it moved into permanent headquarters on Parrish street and began a period of unparalleled growth signaled by, among other changes, expansion beyond state lines, specifically into South Carolina. Andrews includes laudatory selections from press coverage and associates' anecdotes about these formative years. In 1919, the company, inspired by its unparalleled success, changed its name to North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, but Merrick was beginning to succumb to the weight of responsibility and failing health. Andrews reports that, having already lost a foot to illness, Merrick began to anticipate death. He died August 6 of that year.

Andrews's account also examines Merrick's goals and actions through the lens of racial politics. He 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. He provides physical descriptions of Merrick and uses testimonial evidence to illustrate how Merrick inspired African Americans across the country to join his philanthropic causes and work for social advancement. Merrick also enjoyed strong relationships in the white business community as well as with African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. As part of his discussion of Merrick's merits as a racial leader, Andrews reprints and annotates an 1898 speech by Merrick. In this speech, Merrick discusses the tragedy of the Wilmington race riots of that year and calls for African American representation in Congress.

The biography also includes a collection of remembrances by white businessmen, including Durham mayor M.E. Newsome and J.B. Duke; selections from Merrick's eulogies and funeral service; and a sampling of the condolence letters sent to the Merrick family. The work concludes with an appendix that consists of a "resolution of sorrow" from Merrick's colleges, a transcript of Dr. R. Baxter McRary's memorial address before St. Joseph's AME church in Durham, a letter from the State of North Carolina Insurance Department, and an auditors report—including financial statements—on the status of North Carolina Mutual.

Works Consulted: Death Certificate of R. McCants Andrews, 5 July 1932. Health Services Record Group, Epidemiology Section, Vital Records Unit. North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC; Anderson, Jean Bradley, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990; North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, Chronicle of Black Lawyers in North Carolina, Vol. 1: The Pioneers: 1865-1950, Durham, NC: North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, March 1981; Weare, Walter B., Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance CompanyDurham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Jason Tomberlin

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