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woman with a pencil in her hand looks down at a ledger
Bookkeeper of insurance company, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information, 1941.

Honoring African Americans: Cornerstones of Economic Development – African American Insurance Companies

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This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

Sergeant Franklin Williams in uniform is looking over the shoulder of his father that is seated at a desk wearing a dark suit
Sergeant Franklin Williams, home on leave from Army duty, discussing insurance problems with his father. May 1942. Photo: Arthur Rothstein. Prints and Photographs Division.

Early in the history of enslaved people in the United States, benevolent societies developed on plantations in order to care for the sick and bury the dead with dignity. In 1787, the Free African Society was formed in Philadelphia by freed Blacks to provide mutual aid and self-help and was the forerunner of the first insurance company organized by African Americans. The African Insurance Company, organized in 1810 in Philadelphia, and patterned after the Free African Society, was thought to be the first African American insurance company.

Following publication of the 1896 study “Race traits and tendencies of the American Negro,” which used statistics and eugenics to argue that African Americans were more prone to disease, the mainstream insurance industry pointed to the work as justification to discriminate against them. African American insurance companies grew as traditional white companies increased premiums and reduced the size of the policies they offered African Americans, making insurance difficult or unaffordable for them. Many early African American insurance companies focused on “industrial insurance” or “burial insurance” and employed people in the community to sell and administer insurance contracts.

Image is of a group of African American men sitting around a table seen though a doorway at a meeting of the insurance agents
A meeting of the insurance agents at the Unity Life Insurance Company, 47th Street and Indiana Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. 1942. Photo: Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division.

One of the most influential African American insurance companies was North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (now NC Mutual), founded in 1898 by seven local businessmen. Founders and administrators Aaron McDuffie Moore, John Merrick and Charles Clinton (C.C) Spaulding became an integral part of the development of Durham, NC.

  • Aaron McDuffie Moore was the first practicing African American physician in the city of Durham  and was responsible for  establishing the Durham Drug Company, the Durham Colored Library, and the Lincoln Hospital. He assisted in launching the Rosenwald schools for African American children statewide and fostered the development of Durham’s Hayti community.
  • John Merrick was born enslaved, but went on to become a barbershop entrepreneur and a business and community leader, as well as a philanthropist. He was the personal barber for the prominent James Buchanan Duke family.  Merrick served as the first president of North Carolina Mutual, created the Merrick-Moore-Spaulding Real Estate Company in order to provide blacks in Durham with real estate insurance. He established the Bull City Drug Company and was influential with the creation and management of the Mechanics & Farmers Bank.
  • C.C. Spaulding was instrumental in the founding of the the National Negro Insurance Association, formed in the offices of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in Durham and he was elected the first president of the association. He succeeded Moore as President of North Carolina Mutual and was on the board of a number of higher education institutions.
Text advertisement which reads: North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company "At Your Service" Always, Richmond Office, 500 North Third St. Phone, Randolph 247. Come in, Phone in, or Write in. Insure Now. J.B. Deans. District Manager. The Company with a Soul and a Service. C.C. Spaulding, President.
Newspaper advertisement for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, with C. C. Spaulding listed as President. Richmond Planet, June 04, 1927. Chronicling America.

Social and economic power was brought to the community by North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and later by the establishment of Mechanics & Farmers Bank (M&F Bancorp, Inc.) in 1907. These companies reinvested in the black community, and in sharing their economic prosperity, grew businesses and spurred entrepreneurs. Many black-owned businesses provided new middle class job opportunities and drew college graduates from local Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In the early 20th century, Durham became the city with the greatest concentration of black-owned business firms in the United States. You can explore the history and development of Durham, NC through the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, a valuable resource for genealogists, historians, urban planners, teachers or anyone with a personal connection to a community, street or building. The African American insurance industry also helped to shape other cities, including Chicago, Richmond, and Atlanta.

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Two women working at an insurance company. Chicago, Illinois, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division.

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