It’s that time of year again which comes during the early days of September. As a matter of fact, the event to which I am alluding took place on last Wednesday, Sept. 7. On that date, 157 years ago, Sept. 7, 1859, a slave mother, living in the Taylors Bridge community, just south of Clinton, gave birth to her first child, a son, she named John. I don’t know if John’s mother had any special feelings about the future destiny of her son, but following the Civil War and emancipation in April 1865, John would eventually rise to extraordinary heights, becoming an entrepreneur, business pioneer and philanthropist in North Carolina.
Comparably, few North Carolinians have shined as brilliantly as John Merrick whose birthplace has remained one of Sampson County’s best kept secrets for all these years, and it’s well past time that we bring greater recognition to John Merrick as a part of Sampson’s rich history, telling the story of the man who raised himself up from slavery to become one of our state’s most prominent citizens.
By 1871, at age 12, John Merrick was placed on his path to success by his mother Violet, as the family migrated from Sampson County to Chapel Hill, leaving behind the “cycle of poverty and debt” associated with sharecropping, in search of a better life. That better life for Merrick started out as a laborer in a brickyard where he worked to help support his mother and younger brother Richard. In the meantime, Merrick used this first real job experience to learn about the value of hard work, at some point, realizing work is the key to success, while acquiring new skills, becoming committed to a life of work and developing other good habits.
Next on his path to seeking a better life, the family moved to Raleigh where Merrick found a job working in construction, erecting a new building on Shaw’s campus. Later, after having been laid off from his construction job, he realized he had to seek out his next challenge, believing in the words of the great Frederick Douglass—“the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down.”
After working at shining shoes in a popular Raleigh barbershop, John Merrick had something good to come by from that kind of labor as he was taught the trade of barbering, in between shining shoes. From here, Merrick’s daring and pursuing qualities take him to Durham as an enterprising barber, realtor and contractor.
As the founder of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company that has been in business for 118 years, Merrick’s enduring hard work still has value for us today, remaining a symbol of “longevity, success and entrepreneurship.”
Let’s lend our support to those who want to teach the community more about his life and legacy, sharing his birthplace with the rest of the state and nation.
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School.