Civil War Series

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The Insurance Company That Powered Durham’s Black Wall Street

John Merrick was born into slavery, and at the time of his birth, African-Americans were easily insurable … as property. But by the time Merrick was a free adult, most black men, women, and children couldn’t get an insurance policy. Most insurance companies simply wouldn’t cover African-Americans.

So in 1898, Merrick cofounded what is known today as the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which was initially created to solve a big problem: helping black families afford a proper burial.

Funerals — known as homegoings — have long been a proud tradition in the black community. In the late 19th century, even the insurance companies that would serve black people tended to charge astronomical premiums. But African-Americans were, and still are, likelier to be poor and to die earlier than white people. As a result, many untimely black deaths came with another

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