Celebrating ‘the Mutual’

Oct. 24, 2013 @ 06:20 PM

For a business formed in the waning months of the 19th century to still flourish 13 years into the 21st is remarkable enough.

For it to be a business formed in the South by African Americans for African Americans at a time when the iron grip of Jim Crow was fastening on the region is more remarkable still.

Here in Durham, we tend to take the N. C. Mutual Insurance Co. a bit for granted. Surviving as an icon for well over a century can do that to a company. 

It is one of the oldest and for generations was the largest black-owned business in the country. Its leaders have been this community’s leaders, even when segregation froze them out of traditional leadership roles.

So it’s good to see an exhibit celebrating its first 115 years. “Soul & Service: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, 115 Years and Counting” will be on display until Dec. 20 at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

John Gartrell, director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African American History and Culture at Duke, searched 98,000 company materials to find pictures, financial statements and documents that help tell the company’s history.

Its history, of course, is interwoven with that of Durham and the South.

It was founded in April 1899, and like many new businesses struggled in its early years.

But “Durham at the beginning of the twentieth century was fertile ground for the growth of such an enterprise,” noted a “This Month in North Carolina History” article from UNC Libraries, archived on the library website.

“Forced out of politics by the successful ‘White Supremacy’ political campaign of 1898, Durham’s African American leaders turned their talents to the business world instead,” the article continued. “The African American community of Durham was relatively prosperous and enjoyed better relations with its white counterpart than prevailed in many other communities in the state. The idea of an insurance company, moreover, fit in naturally with a tradition among African Americans of self-help, mutual aid societies or fraternities.”

The company prospered, helping to create a relatively affluent African American middle- and upper-middle class rare in southern cities. N.C. Mutual and the black-owned Mechanics and Farmers Bank earned the name “Black Wall Street” for downtown’s Parrish Street, where they were headquartered for decades.

Perhaps ironically, the end of legal segregation and the opening of many previously closed doors to African Americans have increased the challenges for N. C. Mutual.

Insurance consumers, managerial talent and capital that once had little choice but to turn to “the Mutual” have far more possibilities. “Because we have so much access and so much choice today, those dollars are dispersed not as much in a concentrated manner as it was in the early days,” President and CEO James H. Speed told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz this week.

We hope the future holds another promising century for the company as it pivots to adjust to its new challenges. Regardless, its impact on Durham has been enormous and we’re fortunate to have the new exhibit to capture that.