Go to Durham, You Need the Inspiration

By Morris, Gregory D. L. | Financial History, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

Go to Durham, You Need the Inspiration


Morris, Gregory D. L., Financial History


In 2019 the city of Durham, North Carolina, celebrates its sesquicentennial. Beyond the celluloid fame of the Bull City's baseball team is an even more inspiring story of how this town nurtured a thriving and enduring black business community.

"Durham was originally a railroad depot and warehouses that prospered on tobacco," said Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center. "Tobacco meant plantations and slaves. After the Civil War there remained a large population of former slaves who had to decide their own future. They were freed, but still legally segregated; they literally had to stay on their side of the tracks."

The Hayti ("HAY-tie") community started to coalesce about the turn of the century as formerly enslaved peoples settled in and began building. "Durham started out with numbers," Lee explained. "There were people from the area, and others who came here from other parts of the South."

From the earliest days of settlement through colonial times, North Carolina was something of a neutral ground between the population and trading centers of Tidewater Virginia and Maryland around the Chesapeake Bay, and Charleston, to the south. North Carolina lacks major navigable rivers; its marshy coastline as well as fearsome tides and weather around Cape Hatteras kept settlements small and scattered.

One important factor in the concentration of people and talent in and around central North Carolina was that it suffered relatively little damage from the war that devastated wide swaths of Virginia and South Carolina on either side. Indeed its major war historical site is the Bennett Place, just outside Durham, where the last and largest surrender of Confederate troops took place.

In a farmhouse between Union General William T. Sherman's headquarters in Raleigh and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's headquarters in Greensboro, those the two commanders met in the days after the more famous surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. On April 26, 1865, Sherman and Johnston signed surrender papers for Southern armies in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. It was the largest troop surrender of the American Civil War.

"Atlanta and Charleston burned," said Lee at the heritage center. "Durham did not burn." Instead, Durham got to work, both black and white. Perhaps the bestknown Black Wall Street success story is the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, established in 1898 by African-American business leaders who recognized the need for an insurance association to serve black consumers.

It is important to note that these were already established professionals with the wherewithal to form a well-capitalized firm, and also with sufficient respect within the white local and state power structure to be left unobstructed. There were also black consumers, not just customers, but professionals, homeowners and artisans.

According to its official company history, "North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company was born out of a heart-felt desire and determination to serve the underserved. In 1898, African Americans were fewer than three decades from slavery. Established insurance companies had little or no interest in marketing to the black community. Just meeting end-of-life expenses and being able to bury a loved one with dignity-something that can be achieved through life insurance-were beyond the means of a great portion of African Americans."

The use of the word "mutual" in the name was deliberate, the company explained. "When our founders decided to create an insurance company for the African-American market, they each had to contribute from their own resources, making it a mutual undertaking. Similarly, each policyholder gained a small stake in the company, with the health of their policy dependent on NC Mutual's progress. The success of this mutual enterprise was a tremendous source of pride for African Americans in Durham and across the country in those early days of freedom. …

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