Remembering Merrick’s legacy
by Larry Sutton Contributing columnist
Over the last three years, efforts have been made to make the Sampson County community more aware of the life and accomplishments of John Merrick. Born into slavery on Sept. 7, 1859 near Clinton, 154 years ago, Merrick rose from poverty to prominence, becoming an inspiration for his race.
Known primarily as a business pioneer, in 1880 Merrick relocated to Durham to start a new barbershop business, eventually acquiring eight barbershops and embarking on the establishment of new business enterprises, while becoming one of the largest property owners in Durham.
Merrick is most remembered as one of the founders and first president of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which was as that time the largest black-owned insurance firm in the United States and remains today Merrick’s great and eternal monument, his lasting legacy.
To mark Merrick’s 154th birth date anniversary, I want to express my sincere appreciation for all that has been done to help get Merrick recognized and honored locally. Firstly, the many newspaper articles have introduced people to Merrick by highlighting his life and accomplishments. Secondly, the first ever John Merrick memorial tribute, held at First Baptist, 900 College St., on Sept. 7, 2011 did much to remind people about Merrick’s inspiring life story, at which both the country and city presented proclamations recognizing Merrick’s achievements. And last year the History Museum displayed an exhibit dedicated to John Merrick.
So many people and institutions have contributed greatly to the overall efforts to make Merrick better known in his hometown, efforts that I hope will continue annually as I still believe this might be a tool that can be used to motivate and inspire young people of all backgrounds and cultures.
Now, this brings me back to my original request that I made in 2010 when I first addressed the Sampson County Board of County Commissioners on the subject of honoring John Merrick. At that time I spoke to the county board about the possibility of having Merrick honored with a memorial monument placed on or near the Sampson County Courthouse grounds. If you are wondering where things stand today, well, my ultimate goal is still to get a monument erected here, honoring Merrick’s birthplace and what he has achieved.
Since my official request was made, the county has adopted a “Policy for the Placement of Monuments, Memorials and Artwork” which created the newly formed Sampson County Historical and Cultural Preservation Committee. Once this committee is finally organized, I will be submitting my applications for a memorial monument honoring John Merrick.
Currently, there are seven separate entities found on the courthouse grounds ranging from a historic marker honoring Richard Clinton to a VFW Memorial honoring veterans who served in time of armed conflict. Absent from the courthouse grounds is any direct early African American representation, reflecting the early history and influence of the African American presence in Sampson County.
In reference to honoring John Merrick, his steadfast friend and adviser James B. Duke remarked, “The name of Merrick deserves to live and be a constant call to others to seek success and to use success for the good of mankind.”
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