Local News

N.C. Mutual Insurance Celebrates Its Centennial, Founders

Posted September 29, 1998 7:00 a.m. EDT

— Thirty three years after the Civil War ended slavery, most life insurance companies would still not sell policies to blacks. Thus began a great success story rooted in the City of Durham.

The success continues for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company 100 years later.

"John Merrick was an entrepreneur and had several barber shops," says Eileen Watts-Welch, the founder's great granddaughter. "And [he] also saw needs in the community, that he wanted to try and help people out."

Merrick and Dr. Aaron Moore took a risk in October of 1898 to fill a need in Durham's black community. They started a life insurance company that almost failed when the first claim came due.

"And they all had to ante up again to help satisfy that claim so they had to go into their own pockets," according to James Edward Sansom, great grandson of one of the founders.

The risk paid off not just for the founders but also for other blacks in Durham. N.C. Mutual helped spawn the first black-owned bank and several other thriving businesses.

"A lot of times, they say maybe Durham, Atlanta were the places to be on the east coast if you were a black entrepreneur," Sansom said.

Leroy Frazier and Harold Davis started as policy salesmen in the 30s and 40s and saw things they had never seen before.

"To see a black person sitting down at a desk with a typewriter," remembers Leroy Frazier, a retired company executive.

"They always had a statement that there's plenty of room at the top for those who are willing to work for it," said Harold Davis, a 51-year employee.

N.C. Mutual broke many racial barriers in the business world. Those who look back on the company's legacy say others would do well to follow its example.

"In today's environment, it always takes a certain amount of sacrifice," says Sansom. "I think even the founders and those who joined in founding the institution here, all of them had to really sacrifice. It's not easy."

North Carolina Mutual operates in 21 states and is the nation's oldest and largest African American-owned life insurance company.