Here at Breedlove Market, we gain inspiration from the rich history of successful black entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and creators that overcame unimaginable circumstances. Their ability to overcome systemic racism and constructed inequity guides a path forward for everyone today. Despite the work put in by these individuals, they frequently are not taught in traditional educational systems. Without teaching the success of our past, we can't expect success in the future. With that in mind, we want to highlight 28 historical figures, one for each day of Black History Month. We hope that their inspirational true-life stories will inspire you to also chase after your dreams.
Third, in our Black History Spotlight series, we're covering the life of Charles Clinton Spaulding. Spaulding was a hugely influential black business leader during the Golden Age of Black Entrepreneurship, presiding over the largest black-owned business of the time, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. The company was estimated to own assets worth over $40 million at the time of his death.
Spaulding was born on August 1, 1874, in Columbus County, North Carolina. Columbus County at the time did not have a wealth of educational opportunities so at the age of 20 Spaulding moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he worked to earn the equivalent of a high school education. He completed this education in 1898 and found a job as the general manager of a black-owned grocery store.
The following year a new insurance company named North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association was created by John Merrick and Aaron M. Moore. In 1899, they recruited Spaulding to work as a part-time agent for the company. Within a year, he was promoted to general manager.
The business model of the company was to specialize in "industrial insurance", in other words, burial insurance. Hired salesmen collected small payments of roughly 10 cents that covered the insured individual for the following week. If the insured individual died, the company immediately paid benefits of $100. This 100 dollars usually covered the cost of a suitable funeral, which was considered to be a high-prestige item in the black community.
The company expanded rapidly during the first decade of operation, establishing subsidiaries and supporting other local businesses. In 1908, nine years after joining the company as a part-time agent, Spaulding was promoted to vice-president. He was promoted again in 1919 to secretary-treasurer. That same year the company changed its name to the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
By the following year, 1920, the company employed over 1,000 people and had several physical offices along the East Coast. Three years later, Spaulding became president of the company, overseeing additional growth and establishing additional black-operated subsidiaries. He would continue to lead the company as president until his death in 1952.
The company managed to survive the economic devastation of the Great Depression due to Spaulding's leadership in a financial reorganization.
Spaulding's abilities also saw him elected to leadership roles in organizations outside of the North Carolina Mutal Life Insurance Company. He provided leadership in the National Negro Insurance Association and the National Negro Bankers Association. In 1942, he was elected to membership of the New York Chamber of Commerce, an overwhelmingly white body. In 1926, he was awarded the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal for distinguished achievement in business. He was bestowed honorary Doctorates of Law from Shaw University, Tuskegee Institute, and Atlanta University.
Although best known for his business acumen and leadership, Spaulding was also politically active and cared about educational issues. He became the national chairman of the Urban League's Emergency Advisory Council. He actively campaigned to secure New Deal jobs for black Americans. He chaired the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs (DCNA) and worked on voter registration efforts and convinced city politicians to hire black police officers. His interest in supporting educational initiatives had him serve as trustee of Howard University, North Carolina College, and Shaw University.
Later in life, he declined appointments to the Fair Employment Practices Committee and as a minister to Liberia. He was more focused on local issues in Durham, North Carolina, working as the secretary of the North Carolina Commission on Interacial Cooperation and as chairman of the DCNA. Working in those two roles, he guided the passage between two eras of southern politics and race relations. His work is estimated to have helped to bring back black re-enfranchisement twenty years earlier than other comparable southern cities.
If you'd like to learn more about Charles Clinton Spaulding, his life, and legacy, we recommend the following sources that we used to create this post:
North Carolina History Project
Breedlove Market is a marketplace that sells products exclusively from black-owned brands and businesses. We aim to take out the challenge of finding the right black-owned product and make it easier to shop with a purpose.