Downtown Durham view showing the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Headquarters. In 1965, the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance building became the tallest office building owned by African Americans in the United States. In 2006, the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. building sold to a developer for only $11.4 million. N.C. Mutual remains in the building as a tenant under a long-term lease agreement. (photo courtesy of Wikicommons)
In 1900, John C. Merrick knew that Blacks had short life expectancies, low income and poor health, and that those things made it risky to start a life insurance company for African Americans. His determination to help his community however, prompted him to join forces with Black investors like Aaron Moore to form North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham, North Carolina, one of the largest companies founded by African Americans in the country. They began in 1898 and by 1899 and they had less than $1000 in income.
It was during that time that Merrick, Moore and other influential Black businessmen in Durham, bought the Royal Knights of King David, a semi-religious fraternal and beneficial society for health and life insurance. During that transaction, Merrick learned how insurance worked and how to relate the insurance business to African Americans. By 1910, their bankroll had increased to $250,000.
“During its existence, North Carolina Mutual has been a catalyst for minority, social and economic development,” says the organization’s current officials.
“Racial self-help and uplift are traditions of the company dating back to its founding. The phrase ‘merciful to all’ was the company’s first motto. With a sense of corporate social consciousness and responsibility, the company formulated its concept of the Double-Duty Dollar.
“Modeled after popular mutual benefit societies, the concept was based on the premise that income from insurance sales could be channeled back into the community. Throughout its history, the company has had programs to build strong black families and communities through jobs, investments, loans, contributions and support of social programs…”
Merrick was born into slavery in 1859, a mulatto whose mother was a slave. Growing up in Raleigh, NC and Chapel Hill, he was able to acquire a variety of skills, like barbering and bricklaying. He had a mind for business as a young man, having started a hair cutting business at around age 22 in Durham. His business expanded into a chain of stores for both Whites and Blacks.
Merrick was NCM’s first president, serving until his death in 1919.
“The Company has had nine presidents in its history: John Merrick, Dr. Aaron M. Moore, Charles C. Spaulding, William J. Kennedy Jr., Asa T. Spaulding, J.W. Goodloe, William J. Kennedy III, Bert Collins and James H. Speed Jr., who assumed office January 1, 2004,” explained company officials.
The effects of the founding of N. C. Mutual Life on Durham have been long-lasting. It is said to have fostered a more progressive type of society in the deeply segregated South at the time. While it did not rid the city of segregationist politics and policies, the economic progress of African Americans could not be understated.
In fact, N.C. Mutual was a part of Durham’s overall economic progress. More importantly, it provided jobs, good jobs to plenty of African Americans in the area. Both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, two prominent Black leaders of the time who differed in their economic strategies for the Black race, praised N.C. Mutual as an uplifting institution for African Americans.
N.C. Mutual still stands strong today. Now, it provides services to people across the entire nation. It’s most recent reported assets were $162 million and a net life insurance of about $14 billion.