John Merrick was born enslaved on September 7, 1859. He went on to become an entrepreneur, a community leader, and a philanthropist based on income initially generated from his barbering establishments in Durham, NC. He was the personal barber for the prominent James Buchanan Duke family, with his early establishments catering to white clientele. Before and after Reconstruction, African American barbers were important figures in Black Wall Streets across the country and emerged as entrepreneurs in other fields in the early 20th century, including real estate, banking, and insurance.
Merrick joined with other prominent businessmen to bring needed services and middle-class jobs to the Durham community that were not available due to segregation and discrimination. He served as a co-founder, along with Aaron McDuffie Moore and C.C. Spaulding, of North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, later known as North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Merrick served as its first president and was succeeded by Spaulding. Merrick was also involved in the creation and management of the Mechanics & Farmers Bank, the first Black bank in Durham, as well as the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company, which was established to provide property insurance for the black community. Merrick formed the Bull City Drug Company and was president of Lincoln Hospital. These companies reinvested in the African American community in Durham, NC, bringing it social and economic prosperity, growing other businesses, and providing middle class jobs and opportunities. The area drew college graduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the early 20th century.
Merrick learned to read and write in a Reconstruction school and lacked the formal education of a businessman, but he supported Black literacy and scholarship for children and adults by funding rural schools and the College for Blacks in Durham, now known as North Carolina Central University. Through his philanthropy, a public library was open to serve black children in the community.
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