Although John Merrick (1859-1919) had little formal education, his innate intelligence and perseverance contributed to his future success. Merrick began work in the barbershop business as a bootblack and worked his way up to the position of barber at W. G. Otey’s in Raleigh. In 1880 he and a partner opened a shop on Main Street in Durham. He eventually owned three white and two black barbershops and became one of Durham’s most successful entrepreneurs.
In 1883 Merrick and four other men acquired Durham’s Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal society for health and life insurance. As treasurer for the society, Merrick’s knowledge of providing insurance to African Americans grew. In 1898 Merrick found investors, include Dr. Aaron Moore, and founded the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Society, a life insurance company that began operating April 1, 1899. Many of the investors pulled out in the first year, and the company was reorganized on July 1, 1900, with Merrick and Dr. Moore as principal shareholders. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company went on to become the largest and most successful black-owned insurance business in the United States.
In addition to his entrepreneurial ventures, which included investing the profits from his barbershops to build houses using lumber from old tobacco warehouses Washington Duke contracted with him to remove, he did much to improve life for Durham’s African-American community. He was instrumental in securing funding from the Duke family to build Lincoln Hospital, a hospital for African Americans, and became president of its board of directors. When the library Dr. Moore had started needed new quarters, Merrick rented the budding Durham Colored Library a building on the corner of Fayetteville and Pettigrew streets and became a benefactor of the institution. He was a patron of other good causes including St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and Kittrell College.
His unprecedented position of authority enabled him to work within the established white power structure to protect the African- American community’s interests. Merrick’s unique position was recognized by Durham’s mayor, M. E. Newsom, in an address eulogizing the businessman after his death in 1919:
The life of our late friend, John Merrick, has meant much to our community, our State and Nation. Quietly but surely, during his early life, he won the confidence and good will of his white friends without releasing the influence which he had with those of his own race; and as years passed, this joint relationship and fellowship which he enjoyed increased to such magnitude that his counsel was heard and his advice was heeded in the halls of many states.