Background: The North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company on Parrish Street in Durham, NC
In the early twentieth century, Parrish Street in Durham, North Carolina, was the hub of African American business activity. This four-block district was known as “Black Wall Street,” a reference to the district of New York City that is home to the New York Stock Exchange and the nation’s great financial firms. Although other cities had similar districts, Durham’s was one of the most vital, and was nationally known. Parrish Street bordered the Hayti community, Durham’s main African American residential district, and the two districts together served as the center of black life in Durham.
Forced out of politics by the successful “White Supremacy” political campaign of 1898, Durham’s African American leaders turned their talents to the business world instead. The African American community of Durham was relatively prosperous and enjoyed better relations with its white counterpart than prevailed in many other communities in the state. The idea of an insurance company, moreover, fit in naturally with a tradition among African Americans of self-help, mutual aid societies or fraternities. John Merrick, born into slavery in 1859, had become by the late 1890s a business success in Durham. Owner of half a dozen barber shops and a real estate business, Merrick was also a member of the Grand United Order of True Reformers, a mutual benefit society organized in Richmond in 1881 which had expanded into insurance and banking. In 1898 Merrick brought together six of Durham’s leading black business and professional men and organized North Carolina Mutual. Guided by the “triumvirate” of John Merrick, Dr. Aaron M. Moore, and Charles Clinton Spaulding, “The Company with a Soul and a Service” survived the hardship of its first years to achieve success and help make Durham’s reputation as a center of African American economic life.
On the first of April 1899 the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company opened for business in Durham, North Carolina. The first month’s collections, after the payment of commissions, amounted only to $1.12, but from such beginnings North Carolina Mutual grew to be the largest African American managed financial institution in the United States.
In 1906, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the nation’s largest black-owned insurance company, moved its headquarters to Parrish Street. It was soon joined by the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and the founderd of North Carolina Mutual also invested in real estate and textiles. National leaders W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington both visited the city, in 1912 and 1910, respectively, and praised black entrepreneurship and the tolerance of whites.
In the 1960s, urban renewal wiped out much of Hayti and Durham’s black business community, but by that time, Parrish Street’s heyday had passed.