William Henry Belk (1862 – 1952)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Born in 1862, as the son of a farmer, Belk overcame obstacles in life to later build a retail empire. His father was killed shortly after the Civil War by Union soldiers looking for a gold mine that did not exist.  After working at a dry goods store in Monroe, Belk decided to use his perseverance and background in retail to start his own venture.

 In 1888, at the age of 26, Belk opened his first retail store in Monroe. Using personal savings and $3000 worth of goods taken from another bankrupt store on consignment, he opened his doors.  In less than a year he paid off his debts with interest and made a profit.  He achieved great success by offering inexpensive goods for cash, instead of the prevalent credit system of his time. By 1891, the business had expanded and Belk’s brother John joined in the endeavor.  Belk Brothers Company was created and continued to open stores in the Charlotte region.

Today there are more than 200 Belk stores in the southeast and mid-Atlantic regions.  The company is one of the last privately owned retail chains in the country. Belk managed his stores until his death in 1952 at the age of 89. His memory is honored by the legacy of philanthropy and community service continued by his family and the corporation he created.

 (Used with permission. Originally published at Free Enterprise Heroes by The Jesse Helms Center)