A Clinton native who overcame the largest of obstacles in ascending from Sampson County slavery roots to a life as an influential businessman and entrepreneur in the Durham area has now taken his rightful place in this county’s history.
An exhibit honoring local son John Merrick is now on display at the Sampson County History Museum on Lisbon Street, thanks to the joint efforts of longtime educator Larry Sutton, who has made it his goal to see Merrick honored locally, as well as David and Jeannie King at the History Museum.
“This is quite an accomplishment that the Museum agreed to display John Merrick here for us,” said Sutton. “Hopefully we will continue to bring recognition to John Merrick in different ways, maybe annually. This is our second year in doing things to bring recognition and honor to his birthplace.”
The museum display features proclamations by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners and Clinton City Council honoring Merrick, various newspaper articles detailing Merrick’s life and the efforts of Sutton, as well as a program from the first-ever John Merrick tribute ceremony held last year on the man’s birth date.
On Friday, exactly a year after that ceremony, Sutton and David King marked Merrick’s 153rd birthday anniversary by officially unveiling the exhibit dedicated to him. The display, featured prominently toward the entrance of the museum, is anchored by a portrait of Merrick crafted by Clinton High School art teacher Michael Ray for the Black Men’s Organization, a school club at CHS organized by Sutton, a history teacher at Clinton High School for 34 years, to reach out to young black males.
It is flanked by the framed proclamations and program from last year’s tribute program.
During last year’s ceremony, Sutton called the moment “historic” and shared his hope that the proclamations might find a resting place where others could read about the achievements of Merrick.
A positive step in that direction was taken Friday.
“So many people come through the museum and don’t realize that we have people like John Merrick who have contributed so much, as far as what they have done and what a person can come from the bottom to do,” said King. “It’s great to have it here. Some folks came here Saturday and read through that and said, ‘I had no idea.’”
An insurance agent, entrepreneur and business owner, Merrick was widely considered an important personality in Durham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While he saw most of his successes in Durham, Merrick’s origins were in Clinton, where he was born on Sept. 7, 1859. Those local roots led retired educator Sutton to pursue the possibility of having Merrick honored in some way in the community where he saw his start.
Sutton said Merrick’s business successes still impact citizens across the state and nation. He has strived not only to introduce people to Merrick and teach people a little about him, but also impart to them his inspiring journey from slavery to the pinnacle of success, in hopes they may take it to heart in their own lives.
Merrick was born into slavery, the son of a single mother. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Merrick’s family was freed. When he was just 12, Merrick moved with his family to Chapel Hill, where he worked in a brickyard. Around 18, he moved to Raleigh to become a brick mason, working on the construction of Shaw University while also learning the barber trade.
A few years later, in 1880, he arrived in Durham and, within two years, expanded his barber business into five shops — two catering to blacks, three catering to whites. Eventually, Merrick owned eight barbershops. By the end of the decade, Merrick was one of the largest property owners and subsequently joined two other Durham businessmen, Dr. Aaron Moore and Charles Clinton Spaulding, to create Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Land Company.
Merrick and the two men later founded the Bull City Drug Company, the Durham Negro Observer and the short-lived Durham Textile Mill. Merrick also helped establish Mechanics and Farmers Bank and the Lincoln Hospital in Durham. He is most remembered for the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Company, which he founded in 1898, eventually becoming the largest black-owned insurance company in the United States. Merrick’s efforts are credited with helping Durham become the city with the greatest concentration of black-owned business firms in the nation during the 20th century.
For all those accomplishments, Sutton has pursued having Merrick honored with a memorial on or near the Sampson County Courthouse grounds. While he has not given up on that, Sutton said he is extremely grateful to be able to share Merrick’s legacy with the help of the History Museum.
Along with honoring Merrick’s life, the exhibit also represents what has become a large part of Sutton’s. Everything on display is due in large part to Sutton’s perseverance, first making the community aware of the importance of Merrick and then seeking, whether through a monument, ceremony or proclamation, to have him recognized.
“This being here and him being recognized, this is great,” said Sutton.
The county’s proclamation recognized Merrick for being a “torch bearer for his generation” and for efforts that “transcended race and engendered societal and economical impacts” in the community and state. The city’s proclamation recognized Merrick as “a man who changed the U.S. societal landscape.”
Despite being a local historian himself, King conceded he was one who was not familiar with Merrick and his ties to Sampson.
“Really, until all this was brought up and I started reading some of the articles in the newspaper, I had no idea that John Merrick had contributed to this county and to other counties, Durham and all, and what he had done,” King said. “It’s just amazing, and it’s a perfect place for him right here.”
While Sutton still plans to pursue a memorial around the courthouse, King said it would serve the community well to have the Merrick exhibit at the History Museum.
“It’s here,” King stated. “Most of the time if you go to the courthouse, you’re there for a traffic ticket or something real quick and out. You really don’t pay a lot of attention to what is right there at the courthouse as you do when you come to the museum to read and learn about history, and what people have accomplished through the years.”
In that respect, there is not a better fit or a subject more deserving than Merrick within the halls of Sampson County history.
“As far as we’re concerned, this will be right here for everybody to read and see as long as the museum is here,” said King. “This is the proper place for it.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.