John Merrick (1859-1919)

Written By Jessica Lee Thompson

John Merrick was born on September 7, 1859 as a slave and learned to read and write in a Reconstruction school. Merrick later worked as a brick mason and as a barber when the construction business was slow. Merrick moved to Durham in 1880 to work at a barbershop that John Wright had recently opened.  Soon after, Merrick bought half of the barbershop, and it was renamed Wright and Merrick. Within two years, Merrick achieved a personal goal to own real estate when he built a house in the African American section of Durham, then called Hayti.  In 1892, Wright moved to Washington, D.C. and sold the business to Merrick. Merrick expanded his barbershop business and opened barbershops that catered to wealthy white men.


Merrick’s business success allowed him to join other Durham citizens in purchasing the rights to the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal organization that offered insurance to its members and promoted black self-reliance. The fraternal aspect of the organization, however, excluded some blacks. Merrick, along with six other black community leaders, founded North Carolina Mutual Life on a mutual assessment plan on October 20, 1898 to provide insurance opportunities to all blacks. John Merrick served as the Association’s first president.  The original mission statement of the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association aimed to “relieve distress amongst poverty-stricken segment of Durham’s Negro population.”


In addition to his duties at North Carolina Mutual Life, Merrick also helped solve numerous problems within the black community of Durham. As African Americans acquired property in Durham, many wanted to purchase property insurance, yet, insurance regulations prevented North Carolina Mutual Life from offering real estate insurance. Merrick persuaded his business partners to join him in forming a company that offered such a product in Durham. On December 8, 1910, Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company was incorporated.


Merrick was also influential in the establishment and success of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the first black bank of Durham. Many white banks refused to loan money to blacks; therefore, a bank for blacks was essential for black business growth.  Black banks existed in every Southern city with a successful middle-class black population during the early to mid-twentieth century. North Carolina Mutual Life did business mainly with the Mechanics and Farmers Bank once the Bank opened in 1908. Merrick was elected as its first vice-president of the Board of Directors.


Concerned with more than the economic vitality of Durham, Merrick also participated in efforts to improve the health of Durham’s black population. In 1901, Merrick served as the first President of the Board of Trustees for the Lincoln Hospital, the first freestanding black hospital in Durham.  Dr. A. M. Moore credited Merrick with obtaining the necessary funding from the Duke family to build the hospital. Merrick had built relationships with members of the Duke family who were regularly patronized his barbershop. The hospital housed a nursing school that was critical in serving the black population during the Influenza epidemic in 1918 and 1919.


In 1908, no drug stores were conveniently located near Durham’s African American neighborhoods or businesses. To better meet the pharmaceutical needs of a growing black population, John Merrick and five other men founded the Bull City Drug Company. The first Bull City Drug store opened on the North Carolina Mutual Block, and later a second store opened in Hayti.


The education of black children and young adults was a priority for John Merrick. In addition to supporting rural schools and the College for Blacks in Durham (now known as North Carolina Central), Merrick’s philanthropy helped open a public library for the black children of Durham.  When Dr. A. M. Moore wished to expand and increase accessibility to the children’s library at White Creek Baptist Church, he rented space in Merrick’s Fayetteville Street building. After a year, generous donations from white and black citizens of Durham enabled the library to become a permanent institution. Merrick sold the building that housed the library for 4,000 dollars, then Merrick donated $1,000 dollars to sustain the library.