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The Broadside (Transcript): How one business built Black Wall Street

Anisa Khalifa: For decades, the epicenter of America’s Black middle class was in a midsize city in central North Carolina.


Unidentified Anchor: In North Carolina down in the heart of a great tobacco vicinity, there is a young and progressive city named Durham.

Anisa Khalifa: Today, Durham is home to a popular minor league baseball team and an eclectic restaurant and art scene. New high-rise apartments seem to pop up weekly. But for more than a hundred years, it was also home to NC Mutual — an insurance company that provided a foundation for Black wealth in the South. The company would grow into one of the largest Black-owned businesses in the country.

Unidentified Speaker: We went from just door to door sales insurance to pillars nationally. Because people weren't talking about wealth building for African Americans in the 1900s.

Anisa Khalifa: Recently though, NC Mutual closed its doors— marking the end to more than a century of business. But what legacy does it leave behind? I’m Anisa Khalifa. This week on the Broadside, my colleague Kamaya Truitt explores how one business became a beacon for Black Americans in the Jim Crow South — and why we can still hear the echoes of its work today.

Kamaya Truitt: You know that feeling when you’re walking through downtown somewhere… you’ve got these tall buildings lining both sides of the street — then you turn a corner and suddenly — WHOOSH — you get caught in a rush of wind curving its way through the concrete.

This happens almost every time I walk down a specific street in downtown Durham, North Carolina. I round the corner onto Parrish Street and there it is – a strong gust of that city wind. But I like to imagine there’s something else going on. I pretend this wind is a kind of…time machine — my own little downtown Delorean. And it’s taking me back to 100 years ago. Back to when this block was known as something else, something powerful. Black Wall Street.

Kimberly Moore: It was this entire block. I mean, the entire block Parrish Street was where people would, you know, point to and say, Oh, that is where Black Wall Street is. I

Kamaya Truitt: That’s Kimberly Moore. She works with North Carolina’s second congressional district as the director of civic engagement. But she has a strong connection to this block. I met up with her recently and we walked through downtown Durham together and went back in time.

Kimberly Moore: There were diners, there were places to get clothes. And really literally what you would have seen on the street, when it was time for people to come to work at North Carolina Mutual, was like, you know, 50 to 75, African American men and women dressed to the nines, every day, hats, gloves, full suit, you know, handkerchief in the pocket.

Kamaya Truitt: In the early part of the 20th century, this area was one of the most prosperous Black neighborhoods in the country. The building those dapper Black folks were going into — the heart of what was known as Black Wall Street — was home to North Carolina Mutual.

Kimberly Moore: When people were exchanging shifts and going in and out of the mutual building, you were like, wow, something major is going on over here.

Kamaya Truitt: Something major was definitely going on. Inside, the employees of NC Mutual used insurance policies to create a bedrock of Black wealth. It was grounded in Durham, but for more than a century, its roots spread — first across North Carolina, then into the South, and eventually across the country.

They had a legion of insurance agents, going door to door across the South, spreading the word about wealth — and how to make it happen. At one point, North Carolina Mutual was the largest Black owned [insurance] company in the United States.

Kimberly Moore: The mutual was so much bigger than Durham.

Kamaya Truitt: Folks in the know had a nickname for the company. They called it The Mutual. There’s a lot in that name. Community. Respect. Uplift. A chance for Black folks to finally receive just as much, if not more, than they give.

Kimberly Moore: As a front row seat to the history, it's a beautiful story. North Carolina Mutual will forever, you know, have an impact.

Kamaya Truitt: Kimberly Moore and I stepped off Durham’s windy streets and jumped into a studio to chat more about NC Mutual. She worked as a VP of marketing for The Mutual for about 15 years starting in the mid 2000s. And she loves talking about the company’s story.

Now you remember my downtown Delorean — well climb in, because I’m about to take y'all back to the beginning of this story…in one of America’s OG think tanks — the barbershop

Kimberly Moore: I love the barber community. The few times I've been in the barbershop with my dad, you hear all kinds of economic, social, you know, hopeful stories, like everything in the barbershop is not like, you know how we're gonna save the world. It's like, look what we did. You have CEOs and folks just getting off of public transit in the same chair.

Kamaya Truitt: It’s the late 1890s. In Durham, a Black man named John Merrick is running a barbershop and he keeps hearing the same thing over and over from his customers…

Kimberly Moore: So John Merrick was always being asked to help people bury their loved ones, okay? The original GoFundMe, right, passing the hat at the barbershop.

Kamaya Truitt: Black families often couldn’t afford to give their loved ones the respect they deserved with a proper burial. To put it simply, many white-owned insurance companies would not sell policies to Black people. All right, so say I'm living in the South in the late 1800s and my dad dies, I have to rely on my community to help pay for his funeral and even if we are able to bury him, I don't have access to any insurance payouts. This created another huge hurdle for Black folks to create wealth and pass it down through generations. So John Merrick saw an opportunity to offer these folks something powerful — dignity when they die.

Kimberly Moore: What the mutual really invited people to do was after that person passed, let's have a leg up. That insurance gave you the opportunity to leave a legacy. So the dignity was about the ceremony. But it was also about the legacy you can leave your family

Kamaya Truitt: Merrick got together with two folks in his family — his cousin, Dr Aaron Moore and nephew C.C. Spaulding.

Kimberly Moore: The three of them, called the triumvirate, they put the company on the map

Kamaya Truitt: In 1898, they opened the doors to NC Mutual. It was a smart business move. But it was also an act of bravery and defiance.

Kimberly Moore: You had the same danger that you have everywhere in the 1800s, right. The interesting thing about the mutual again, being found in 1898. Is that, you know, right up the street, you have the Wilmington riots, exact same year.

Kamaya Truitt: Okay, let’s take another second on that — the same year the Mutual opened up shop in 1898, right down the road in Wilmington, North Carolina, a mob of white supremacists overthrew the city’s government and massacred dozens of Black people in a racist coup.

Kimberly Moore: But what I think that it had to have done for people like, you know, the Spauldings and the Moores, and Merricks was like, Okay, we're here. Like, we aren't going anywhere. You all are, you know, taking pictures of folks swinging in trees. But guess what, we are not leaving here, we built this city, and we're going to stay in the city. And that should inspire generations.

Kamaya Truitt: Even though it was embedded in the Jim Crow South, NC Mutual thrived. In the early 1900s, the Mutual’s life insurance policies helped families and entrepreneurs in the region build up wealth. In turn, Durham’s Black Wall Street began to grow. Next door to the Mutual, the Black-owned Mechanics and Farmers Bank soon opened up for families to put that wealth in the vault. By the 1920s, business was booming up and down the block.


Unidentified Anchor: In North Carolina down in the heart of a great tobacco vicinity, there is a young and progressive city named Durham.

Kamaya Truitt: This is from a newsreel called “Success Story” that was produced by NC Mutual in the 1940s.

Unidentified Anchor: Inside the Home Office this morning, switchboard operators, clerks, stenographers, bookkeepers and secretaries prepare for a routine day's work with their usual composed dignity. And yet, no doubt within each of them, a spirit of excitement runs rampant as they look forward to the company's annual evening banquet. For today marks the first celebration of North Carolina Mutual’s golden anniversary.

Kamaya Truitt: Okay y’all, speaking of golden, lemme take a second to share something. This old newsreel isn’t the only relic we have from The Mutual’s glory days. Housed inside NC Central University in Durham is a huge supply of old artifacts.

Andre Vann: I pulled a few select things out, especially around marketing…

Kamaya Truitt: They’ve got lots of things you’d expect from an archive. Pictures of the founders. Records of sales dating back to the early 1900s… but there’s one thing that pops out from the rest. Something that immediately caught my eye with a glimmer of gold…

Andre Vann: This is the much talked about shoe. This is the original C.C. Spaulding shoe. right?

Kamaya Truitt: This is Andre Vann. He’s the archivist at NC Central University, which is also in Durham. He maintains their collection of archives on the Mutual. And the creme de la creme is …wait for it… a shoe.

Andre Vann: Every now and then we’ll bring it out and people just have this love and fascination for it because everyone remembers this iconic image of a shoe. How humble is that?

Kamaya Truitt: Okay but this ain’t just any sneaker. The shoe belonged to co-founder and longtime president of the company: C. C. Spaulding. And get this… it’s encased in a golden bronze coating.

Andre Vann: It’s meant to humbly remind folk, because you know long before automobiles came about, these men went door to door, they had to walk.

Kamaya Truitt: That golden shoe is also a reminder that wealth doesn’t have to stay put in one place. It can travel — it can spread out. Kimberly Moore says that’s exactly what the Mutual’s legion of insurance agents did up and down the East Coast.

Kimberly Moore: the insurance agent did not discriminate, they did not care, if I'm walking into a home with no floor, or a marble floor, I'm coming to get my 25 cent, and you, as an exchange, are going to have this policy that's there for your family.

Kamaya Truitt: What started out as a way to preserve dignity in death eventually grew into the largest Black-owned insurance company in the country. And the Mutual didn’t stop there.

Kimberly Moore: They had resources. And were investing in real estate, they were investing in PR businesses, they were investing in television and radio stations back in the 60s and 70s. So I think that's really how Black insurance became more than insurance, because they had the money. And they were deploying it.

Kamaya Truitt: But by mid-century, something was in the water and the tide was starting to change…

Kimberly Moore: So the golden era of North Carolina mutual was pre-1960. And that directly correlated with integration.Kamaya Truitt: We’ll be right back.(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL NEWS BROADCAST)

John F. Kennedy: The heart of the question is, whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans the way we want to be treated

Kamaya Truitt: It’s the 1960s and the walls of segregation are slowly starting to come down. And with that, more insurance options are opening up for Black folks. You’d think that would mean more potential white clients for Black-run companies…. right?

Kimberly Moore: The competition, post integration was very impactful. So we're wanting to keep our core market but our core market now has other options that are cheaper. So you can't fault African Americans for saying oh, well, I know New York Life didn’t want to sell to me, but they do now and it's cheaper than North Carolina Mutual. What am I supposed to do? We didn't really have the capital — Once we had to compete with Prudential in New York Life, when African Americans could go there to buy insurance. We couldn't compete with their rates. We couldn't compete with their number of agents, they pay their agents more.

Kamaya Truitt: More boots on the ground selling policies at cheaper rates starts to lure Black clients away from firms like the Mutual. Meanwhile, white clients are staying put right where they’ve always been. But the Mutual wasn’t going to go down without trying to step up their game.

Kimberly Moore: So we came back, like with a vengeance, we hired a lot of agents, we doubled down as an industry, black insurance industry really tried to come back in the 70s, and 80s, but just could not sustain it.

Kamaya Truitt: By the 1980s and 90s, Black insurance firms started to buckle. The Mutual rolled on, but its clientele was dipping. That slow decline spilled into the new century.

Kimberly Moore: When I got to the company in 2004, there were about 70, black insurance companies, you know, five years later, it was 35, then it was 30, then it was 20. They just all, you know, just folded, folded, folded, because the resources just weren't there.

Kamaya Truitt: The Mutual was no exception. The business that was once the bedrock of Durham’s Black Wall Street closed its doors permanently in 2022. It's currently in the liquidation process — working to pay out its policy and shareholders.

All right now. Let’s be clear: Wealth has never been close to equal among racial groups in America.


Unidentified Anchor: Well the racial wealth gap is conservatively 11 trillion dollars and could balloon up to 13 and a half trillion during the pandemic .That’s according to the latest research from Duke University…

Unidentified Anchor: America has a major racial wealth gap.

Unidentified Anchor: That is a fact and among the culprit for that is possibly the tax code.

Unidentified Anchor: White adults are over twice as likely as others to get sizable financial help from parents. That is one finding from a new poll by NPR and Harvard University that sheds light on America’s stark racial wealth gap.

Kamaya Truitt: Today, White Americans have six times more wealth per capita than Black Americans. That’s according to a report in 2022 from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. It’s called “The Wealth of Two Nations.” Check it out if you can.

The Mutual was a vital entity for helping close that wealth gap. Now, without the Mutual’s services and resources, folks have less options for chipping away at those racial disparities. But Kimberly says, don’t call it a failure.

Kimberly Moore: So fail is just not my favorite — Okay, so the big banks on Wall Street, they got bailed out, failed. They had all the resources, they had all the capital, they had everything that they needed to thrive, and they still did not. That's a failure, okay. Now, North Carolina Mutual, never had the capital. How do you fail, if you never had the same resources, what I would say is the company's life cycle ran its course.

Kamaya Truitt: Even though they aren’t actively helping families build wealth anymore, the reverberations of their work are still felt throughout the country. It's like the seismic waves of an earthquake that happened a century ago. The bedrock may have been damaged but Kimberly says, now is the time to celebrate the foundation that NC Mutual built.

Kimberly Moore: The mutual is a blueprint for what you do when you have been successful. You don't just stop and start, like, stacking all your money and, really think about how can I have a legacy for more than just my family.

Kamaya Truitt: A legacy with a dollar sign on it. There’s no doubt several of America’s buzzing businesses still have echoes of the Mutual within them. That’s most evident with a man who’s running a business in the literal foundation of where NC Mutual once stood. Carl Webb is a Durham native and the co-founder of Provident 1898. It’s a coworking community for entrepreneurs and artists in downtown Durham. I caught up with him to talk about NC Mutual’s legacy and impact on his life.

Carl Webb: So even when it wasn't trying to advocate and be there for me, the vision that these leaders had had me in mind before I was ready to receive that opportunity.

Kamaya Truitt: Carl and I met inside the offices of Provident 1898. The business is housed in the bottom floor of Mutual Tower in Durham. At the top of this 14-story building, spelled out on all four sides in big white letters is NC MUTUAL LIFE.

In the late 60s, NC Mutual built the tower to serve as its new headquarters. Today, Carl is helping to make sure its foundations stay strong. He’s providing a space for Black-owned small businesses and nonprofits to grow, by connecting people and building each other up through Provident 1898.

CW: my hope is, if you got a great idea, you're going to be fine. If you don't have one, you're going to be in a room with other people that have contributions that they can make to help pull you up.

Kamaya Truitt: I caught up with him to hear more about coming up in Durham.

Carl Webb: I have vivid memories of the aroma of tobacco. I have vivid memories of watching well-to-do Black people move along Parrish Street, which now is known as the Black Wall Street. you had, the building that we're sitting in today was a monument to accomplishment and, and it served as a source of pride. And to have, for a long time the tallest building in downtown Durham, to be home to the largest Black financial institution in the country, in Durham.

And of course, for me, my worldview was so limited, that I didn't have a full appreciation of the magnitude of that accomplishment. But I did every day, have a sense of pride when I could drive by or ride by on a school bus and point to, this is where Black people are doing important things. One day, boy, I might be able to have something to do with that. So it's something that is almost in your DNA and a part of you, that you move through in community with pride.

Kamaya Truitt: And I mean, and then just the representation, right, like you're saying, to be able to look, not only at this building, but the entrepreneurs that were all around you, like, to see this black excellence in real time, consistently, it's got to reverberate, through you and to the next generation. And I think that segues really nicely into why? Why create Provident 1898? What was the initial goal in investing in this and building it up?

Carl Webb: Well, you're right, the, the ripple effect, and the reverberation that you just mentioned was was real to me, because, as you stated, representation does matter… So I would often run into young people as I was moving along my journey of entrepreneurship, you know, driving I've you know, nice car, trying to present myself really well. I mean, that was because the men that I saw, we're like well-put-together. And I had a young person one time, I was at a drive thru window. And I was heading into the office, making a quick stop, and I was dressed up and this young Black kid, after he got my order and everything, he sort of looked out the window, and he says, can I ask you a question? I said sure. he says, How did you do all of this? Now he's serving me, my Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I was like, wow, you know, here's this kid, who all he wants to know is, what's the blueprint? How did this happen? And I tell you, that has happened to me on a lot of occasions. And so when I started thinking about how do I give back, how do I preserve the history and the legacy of Black Wall Street, so many people that I stand on the shoulders of, I wanted to create a place and a space where Black people would feel comfortable in operating in.

Kamaya Truitt: And I think that it is poignant that we are in the foundation of the mutual building. I want to know was that intentional? And maybe how does that resonate? with you being in this particular space,

Carl Webb: we envision this idea of starting at the base of the building, you could move up to the very top… And so we want it to grow businesses, you know, at a very literally, the lower level of the building with the idea of "starting at the bottom now we're at the top" kind of a mindset, but it was also a way to help populate this, this this building with Black owned businesses and give you something to strive for. That's really, you know, from small beginnings, come big things.

There's no public money, this is all private money. If it works, we do well, if it doesn't, not so much. But you know what? It is worth it. Because again, the shoulders that I'm standing on, are folks who thought about me with no regard to what they would get out of it. They just wanted to create a way they wanted to uplift their people. They were carrying the weight of a people. And I feel indebted to do my part, that same young man in that Kentucky Fried Chicken building. It is important that I try for him. So you know. And I'm going to do it until I can't do it anymore. And I'm gonna sleep well, knowing that I tried.

Kamaya Truitt: The loss of The Mutual clearly leaves a void in today’s financial world. But while all things come to an end, that doesn't mean nothing is left behind when a place closes its doors. North Carolina Mutual started out with a mission: to give Black folks dignity after they died. Now folks like Carl Webb and Kimberly Moore say it's our time to return the favor.

Kimberly Moore: If the Mutual had not spawned African Americans to continue to find new ways to impact the insurance industry, I would be in the fetal position too, right, like dang, you know. But 120 years, 124 years of Black excellence, spawning more leaders and insurance nationally, globally? I mean, who can be sad about that?

Kamaya Truitt: It's the phoenix. That's it. That's how I'm envisioning this now.

Kimberly Moore: Yeah. And many phoenixes. I mean, there's many, you know, Black folk in finance now. So it's many phoenixes, it's not one.

Anisa Khalifa: This episode was produced by Kamaya Truitt and Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker. Sean Roux provided audio engineering support.

The Broadside is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. Find us on your favorite podcast app, and on If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or tell a friend to tell a friend! Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.