Durham was once called “the Capital of the Black Middle Class” and the “City on the Hill for Blacks.” It was home to more Black millionaires per capita than any other place in America. And it was headquarters to the world’s largest Black-owned and -operated business: North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
But in December of 2018, NC Mutual, which once played a critical role in providing capital to support the hopes and dreams of African-Americans across the country, quietly entered into receivership with the North Carolina Department of Insurance. Receivership, also known as rehabilitation, is similar to bankruptcy.
The nearly 123-year-old North Carolina Mutual is set for liquidation early this year. This liquidation does not come as a surprise to anyone who has closely followed the story of NC Mutual, or “The Mutual,” as it is often called. If liquidation is the equivalent of dying, then The Mutual’s wheezy death rattle has been audible for several years.
At its peak, NC Mutual was more than a steady, trusted insurance company for Black people when they could not buy insurance elsewhere. Through job creation and reinvestments in local Black communities, NC Mutual was Black America’s venture capital firm before that concept was even coined. In the face of redlining and exclusion, Black Americans reinvested their dollars into their own ideas, businesses, and communities.
But integration, while welcomed and pursued by many Black people, proved to be a double-edged sword for NC Mutual and many other Black businesses. The company slowly declined in the last few decades as Black customers, with expanded options, took their business elsewhere—and white customers failed to reciprocate support for Black businesses.
Understanding the life—and looming death—of NC Mutual is not only instructive for those interested in the company cofounded by seven prominent African-American men in Durham more than a century ago, but in also understanding the economic rise and fall of Black America.