North Carolina Mutual is one of the most influential African-American businesses in U.S. history. Founded in 1898 in Durham, NC by entrepreneur John C. Merrick, the company initially specialized in providing “industrial insurance,” which was basically burial insurance for Black people.
Merrick was born in 1859; His mother was a slave and his father was a white man. During his youth, he learned various skills including bricklaying and barbering. This allowed him to open his very own barber shop in 1882. Later, he opened five stores, and he and his partners bought the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal and social group that also provided insurance to it’s Black members.
Merrick was dedicated to learning as much as he possibly could about the insurance industry. His idea was inspired by the short life expectancies and general poor health that was common within the Black population at that time.
In those days, African Americans were just three decades from slavery. So, covering the cost of a suitable funeral was often impossible for them to do with the small wages they earned. So, Merrick’s strategy was to hire salesmen to collect small payments each week (about 10 cents) to cover the insured person for the following week. If the insured person died, the company would pay benefits of about $100.
During the first year in business, the concept did not immediately catch on and the company lost a lot of money. Therefore, many investors lost faith and decided to leave the company. But in 1900, Merrick reorganized the company, and appointed a new general manager named Clinton Spaulding. Under his leadership, the growth of the company began and spanned for decades.
In fact, for much of the 20th century, North Carolina Mutual was the largest Black-owned company in the country. Today, it is still recognized as the largest and oldest African American life insurance company in the United States.