Today Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull Today Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull

During a time period of Jim Crow laws and openly violating their rights was common, the black populations of Durham were making strides in business. This street, downtown Durham’s Parrish Street, known as Black Wall Street, was famous throughout the country because of the successful black-owned financial businesses, like Mechanics and Farmer’s Bank and the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, that were founded there.

Much of the success can be traced back to the efforts of two African American entrepreneurs: John Merrick and Charles Spaulding. They provided much of the leadership and initiative necessary for the beginnings of Black Wall Street.

 Back Then- Photo: The Herald Sun Archives Back Then- Photo: The Herald Sun Archives

John Merrick was born into slavery in Clinton, North Carolina on September 7, 1859. His first financially successful business venture was his ownership of barbershops in the Durham area. Through his entrepreneurial experiences in the barbershop business, Merrick accumulated wealth and was able to build relationships with many prominent white families of the time, like his longstanding friendship with Washington Duke. John Merrick’s various business endeavors all flourished during his adulthood; these included his participation in the creation of the well-known North Carolina Mutual Company, the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company, the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and the Bull City Drug Company.

Charles Spaulding started out as a dishwasher and later, general manager of a grocery company when John Merrick, the owner of several barber shops, and Aaron M. Moore, a practicing physician, thought of an idea of an insurance company in 1898 (then named North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association). Merrick and Moore employed Spaulding in 1899 and he soon became general manager. After Moore’s death in 1923, Spaulding served as NC Mutual president from 1923 to 1952. He was also active in politics. He helped establish the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs in 1935, serving as its first chairman.

 Back Then- Photo: The Herald Sun Archives Back Then- Photo: The Herald Sun Archives

The company specialized in “industrial insurance”, Which was basically burial insurance. The company hired salesmen whose main jobless to collect small payments ( of about 10 cents) To cover the insured person for the next week. If the person did die while insured, the company immediately paid benefits of about 100 dollars. This covered the cost of a suitable funeral, which was a high prestige item in the black community.

North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company which became America’s largest black-owned business, had assets of over $40 million at Spaulding’s death.

 Today Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull Today Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull  Today Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull Today Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull

Black Wall Street was a four block district on Parrish Street nicknamed in reference to the district of New York City. Though the term “Black Wall Street” did not become prevalent till the late fifties, its identity as an economic powerhouse for blacks was apparent since the late 1800s. The progress of the black business sphere was directly linked to the tolerance and helpfulness of certain elite whites in the area, namely Julian Carr, Washington Duke, and James Duke. This key factor is what differentiated Durham’s racial community from a number of other prominent southern cities. Despite the segregation and discrimination faced by so many in the early 1900s, blacks in Durham enjoyed the highest per capita income, and the highest rate of home ownership, in the country.

By the end of World War II, the success of African American businesses gave Durham the title as “Capital of the Black Middle Class.” However, the 1960s urban renewal removed much of Hayti and Durham’s Black Wall Street. This urban sprawl coupled with a heated Civil Rights movements from the 1940s to 1970s began the first real desegregation of black and white business districts. By the late 1900s the Census Bureau reported the city’s population as 39.8% black and 59.8% white. North Carolina Mutual remained the largest and oldest African American life insurance company. The legacy of these original businesses is still prevalent in current Durham institutions.

You can learn more about Black Wall Street at the Historic Parrish Street Forum, which is a commemorative exhibit and event space honoring the legacy of Durham’s Parrish Street. The forum serves to highlight the impact that black-owned institutions such as, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Mutual Building and Loan and many others had on the economic development of Durham and the building of social equity for black residents in this southern city.

Located in the center of downtown Durham, the forum provides a space for meetings, workshops, classes, and cultural events, as well as the opportunity to connect to Durham’s history.

The Historic Parrish Street Forum is managed by the City of Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Contact them via email or phone at 919-560-4965, ext. 15216.

 Now Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull Now Photo: Katelyn Belch, Best of the Bull

Katelyn Belch
Author: Katelyn Belch

Founder of Best of the Bull and Shop Durham. It’s my chief goal to keep you in the know about all things Durham.