In the late 1800s, John Carruthers Stanly was considered one of the few black millionaires of North Carolina. Luck smiled at him from a young age despite his status; he was born a slave in 1774 to a Nigerian mother and a white merchant called John Wright Stanly. Despite being enslaved, he was given the opportunity to educate himself, and was trained in the barbering trade by his masters – Alexander and Lydia Stewart.
When he mastered the skill of barbering, he was allowed to operate his barbering salon under a bond in New Bern, and became popular due to his excellent skill at shaving the hair of community members. In 1775, his masters petitioned the Craven County court to grant him his freedom, however, this only became possible in 1798 through a special act promulgated by the state legislature.
Between 1800 and 1801, he used his position as a successful businessman to purchase the freedom of his wife and children. Over time, he saved enough money to employ two enslaved Africans, Boston, and Brister, and handed over the operations of the barbering salon to them while he focused on other businesses. He was a remarkable entrepreneur who used his earnings from a barbering shop to invest in landed property, farmland, and labor.
Over a period of time, John accumulated immense wealth from his holdings, which had grown exponentially. He was regarded as one of the wealthiest men of his time and accommodated one of the largest numbers of enslaved Africans in Craven County under his roof. His business model was to purchase properties at low prices and trade them off to make profits. His other revenue streams included his rental properties and barbering salon, as well as proceeds from the sales of his plantation’s commodities, such as cotton and turpentine.
His reliance on the skills of free blacks and enslaved Africans in the operation of his businesses is what shielded him from the economic crisis during the great depression of the 1820s. By the 1830s, his net worth exceeded $68,000, which translates into millions of dollars at the current rate of inflation. However, his wealth hit a decline when he counter-signed a security note of $14,962 for his half-brother.
When the business his brother invested in failed, it compelled Stanly to sell some of his properties to offset the loan, coupled with the economic crisis. By the early 1840s, Stanly’s investment had gone down the drain after he mortgaged most of his properties, and the flow of income from his barbering shop also dwindled. His last 160 acres of land were traded at a public auction when he turned 71 in 1843. John sadly passed away three years later.