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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Establishment of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company

Seeman describes the role of Seeman Printery and his father in helping John Merrick, an African American Durham barber, to establish North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company during the early twentieth century. Because of his reputation as a first-rate barber, Merrick was well-known within the community and because of his connections he was able to get a loan from Washington Duke to establish an insurance company for African Americans in Durham. Here, Seeman explains how Seeman Printery established a good working relationship with Merrick and North Carolina Mutual, printing forms for them, and by selling Merrick prime real estate with which to launch his business. Seeman argues that, to an extent, his father was interested in helping African Americans such as Merrick improve their positions within the community, but more specifically he worked with Merrick because it was a sound business venture.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ernest Seeman, February 13, 1976. Interview B-0012. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
But, now how did John Merrick get the idea (this black barber) to start an insurance company?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
"Well," he said, "Mr. Seeman, we're going to start a little insurance company, and Mr. Washington Duke has offered to lend me the money." Of course, he'd charge him plenty. He'd been talking to him in the barber's chair, and he said, "John, you're too good a man, you're too smart a man to be following a barber's trade. Why don't you have something to make some money? Insurance." He said, "What can I start?" He said, "Well, insurance is one of the best things now, and I'll lend you the money."
MIMI CONWAY:
How much did he lend him? Do you know?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
I don't know, but all he needed.
MIMI CONWAY:
Right; OK.
ERNEST SEEMAN:
All he needed - and he'd charge him plenty for it. And he was the founder of all the banks there.
MIMI CONWAY:
Who? John Merrick or Washington Duke?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Washington Duke.
MIMI CONWAY:
OK. I'm sorry; I interrupted you, because you were saying that John Merrick came into your office to get the right forms.
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Yes, to get his forms.
MIMI CONWAY:
Didn't you give him the lease?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
And upstairs we had a little cupboard where a sample of everything printed was filed away in pigeonholes under numbers. And my father would say, "Ernest, go up there and get me number 3,206." And I'd get it and bring it down and lay it on the desk, and that would be just what he wanted - maybe he'd make some changes in it. So they became good customers, and we saw they were potential customers for more. Well, we began to work through Spaulding then; he became general manager of the insurance company. And I'd go around on Saturday when I needed a big payroll. "Good morning, Mr. Seeman." (He was very polite). "Come right in." And the secretary would drop her work and pay attention to Mr. Seeman. "How much you going to need this morning?" "Well, Mr. Spaulding, I'm going to need about five thousand dollars, or three thousand dollars." "All right, Miss Maple, draw Mr. Seeman a check for three thousand dollars." She was right on the job and tossed it out.
MIMI CONWAY:
Where was the black insurance company located in Durham?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
On Harris Street, right back of the Fidelity Bank. The Fidelity Bank was the biggest bank in town, and that was prominent real estate. No white man would have ever thought of selling a nigger land in the business section, but my father opened up a new section and Spaulding (or one of them) asked him, "Where can we locate? We need an office somewhere, and nobody will sell us any land." Well, there was a little cottage around on Harris Street, a little cottage with a front yard. And my father said, "How would you like to buy this place? I've just bought it, and I'll sell it to you for what it cost me." So they appreciated that, and began to give him more business.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did your father sell to him for business reasons, or . . . I mean, it seems unusual (as you say) for, at the time, a white man to sell real estate (prime real estate) to a black man.
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Well, he was out to make money (everything was to make money).
MIMI CONWAY:
Was he afraid of repercussions from the white community?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
No. He was a fearless man, and he had great sympathy for the black people.
MIMI CONWAY:
And also Duke: was it unusual that a white man such as Duke would suggest setting a black man up in a business that later became one of the biggest in Durham?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
No: anything to make money [laughter] , that was all right.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did Duke eventually get his money back from Merrick?
ERNEST SEEMAN:
Oh yes, many times over.