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Remembering John Moses Avery, A Durham Business Icon

By Chris Privett | February 21, 2017 | Explore NC

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john avery durham
Photo courtesy of NC Mutual archival collection held by NCCU and Duke University.

Pictured above: John Moses Avery (center) at an April 1939 meeting of the South Carolina Negro Underwriters Association. Photo Courtesy of NC Mutual archival collection held by NCCU and Duke University.


If North Carolina had its own version of Mount Rushmore to celebrate key figures in our history, who would the state choose to honor? John Moses Avery would be a top contender for inclusion. During Black History Month, let’s take a moment to reflect on his life.

Avery was born in Morganton in western North Carolina in 1876. From a family of farmers, Avery decided to take a different path. After graduating high school, he attended Kittrell College. This was a historically black college in Vance County that closed 75 years after Avery’s graduation in 1900.

Moving Up

john avery durham
The old headquarters of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance in the heart of Durham’s “Black Wall Street” on West Parrish Street.

After a brief stint as a school principal, he made his professional mark in the insurance industry. In the years after college, Avery became an agent for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. This company was one of the most important and influential black-owned businesses in American history. Avery’s potential was quickly noticed and a series of promotions led him from agent to director to assistant general manager. Eventually, he became the first vice president of North Carolina Mutual.  

As a gifted public speaker, Avery is credited with bringing a new level of tact to the company’s communications function. He was a pioneer in public relations. Remember, this field was in its early stages 100 years ago. He was one of the first people to form a communications training routine for company leaders. This included coaching executives on public speaking and effective messaging.

Honored In His Lifetime – And Beyond

Avery saw great success at North Carolina Mutual. He invested his earnings in a large plot of land in Durham’s Hayti district. In fact, he became so well known that it’s believed Avery Street in Hayti was named for him during his lifetime. This was a rare honor indeed.

john avery durham
Avery St. in Durham, North Carolina

Avery was a multi-dimensional man. He had many interests outside of his insurance work. As a member of the AME Church, he used his influence to advocate for the value of a formal education. Avery was also a prominent black business leader who was a self-made success. For this reason, Avery was an admired figure among Durham’s black children.

He is still honored today for the example he provided. The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Durham’s John Avery Complex is proud to bear his name.

John Moses Avery, you are not forgotten.