Joseph Sansom was just a boy walking to sixth grade in Durham when a sight was etched into his memory – a modest home with a fancy car out front, and what was then a massive television set visible through the open door. Also visible inside was a baby sleeping in a cardboard box.
Now 72, the retired executive still shakes his head at the thought. He would go on to be a successful businessman who was known for driving a 1979 Mercury Zephyr for decades.
“Priorities,” says Sansom, noting that his are, in order, God, family and community. “There’s a time and a place for all of that, but you have to do the important things first.”
Sansom’s conservative views on money dominated his career as an IBM fiscal analyst and his work with Mechanics & Farmers Bank, where he chairs the advisory committee of the Raleigh branch.
Yet he is lavish in giving his own time to a wide variety of causes – from economic development initiatives in Southeast Raleigh to helping plan the annual Martin Luther King Day memorial to serving food to the homeless every Christmas.
Sansom was the first African-American to serve as deputy state treasurer, and he remains active in local and state politics; he’s serving as treasurer for the campaign of Deborah Ross, a former state representative who is running for the U.S. Senate.
He is also working with the YMCA of the Triangle to build a new branch in Southeast Raleigh that will incorporate affordable housing and grocery options for the community where Sansom has long been a resident. Other organizations he gives time to include the Salvation Army, Wake County Schools’ leadership academies and Shaw University.
Smedes York, a former Raleigh mayor who has partnered with Sansom on business deals over the years, says he has continued his family’s long history of service to the community.
“The Sansoms have been part of the leadership of this community going back many years, and Joe is a man who was committed to carrying on that legacy of progressive leadership,” says York, who worked with Sansom to develop a shopping center with a grocery store that has been a boon to Southeast Raleigh since it opened in the 1980s.
For Sansom, such a busy schedule for a retiree who also dotes on his grandchildren is to be expected.
“I believe that if the Lord gives you another day, you need to be helping someone,” he says. “Because it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Legacy of service
Sansom was born into a history of community service. His father, J.J. Sansom, was president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which was founded in 1907 by a group of African-American businessmen when Durham was home to what was then known as Black Wall Street.
J.J. Sansom, who died in 1989, was also a community activist known for his devotion to civil rights causes.
Joseph Sansom grew up in Durham, attending what is now Hillside High School, but was then a segregated school for African-American students.
The family moved to Raleigh when he was 16, and Sansom he was sent to attend Catholic school at the site of the Sacred Heart Cathedral downtown.
“They thought I needed more discipline,” Sansom says. “They figured they’d let the nuns take care of me.”
Sansom went to his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he majored in business and finance. After graduation, he took a job out of college at IBM, which had then just moved to the Triangle.
He worked there for 25 years, with a short break to serve in the Army during the Vietnam era. He was drafted, and Sansom notes that his background got him a plum assignment in accounting. “No one wanted to mess with me because I wrote the checks,” he says. “It was the most powerful job around.”
Throughout his career, he maintained close ties with Mechanics and Farmers. He worked summers there as a teller and bookkeeper during college, and now jokes that he’s one of the few people on the board that actually worked there.
In the 1980s, he was elected a director of the bank, and he now serves on a board that oversees the bank’s Raleigh operations, ensuring that the bank remains profitable while true to its origins. The bank has been profitable for more than 100 years.
Helping close to home
If his work with the bank is an important tie to his family history, it’s only one of many ties he holds to key community stakeholders – each, he notes, with its own importance.
Many are close to home in Southeast Raleigh. He’s a longtime member of the Southeast Raleigh Alliance, which has worked to bring more amenities to that area of town, which is now seeing more development.
One of this most recent initiatives, the planned YMCA in Southeast Raleigh, will take over the site near the much maligned Watson’s Flea Market.
“It will get rid of an eyesore and provide some good amenities,” Sansom says of the planned YMCA building that is slated to include a school and health care center.
Another of his causes is Shaw University. Sansom kids that he’s tried to no avail to tell representatives of Shaw that he is a proud Morehouse graduate, even though his wife went to Shaw and his mother taught there.
Sansom is on the board of trustees of Shaw and has helped in a number of initiatives, from getting a new transmitter for the school’s radio station to helping introduce its new president to the community.
He’s also done some work with St. Augustine’s College. He says even if his loyalties lie elsewhere, he wants to support other historically black institutions at a time when many are struggling.
“It’s important to have these places, these traditions,” he says. “It would be a shame to see them go.”
Another cause has been the Wake County Schools’ leadership academies, boys and girls schools aimed at training a new generation of leaders.
But his top priority remains his family, he says. He’s a regular at his grandson’s basketball and baseball games. He was the main caregiver for his mother, who passed away last year at age 97, and for a while was receiving dialysis several times a week.
“Whatever I had to do, I wouldn’t do it if she needed me,” he says.
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Joseph Merrick Sansom
Born: June 1943, Durham
Career: Retired financial analyst, IBM; chairman of City Advisory Board, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Raleigh
Education: Bachelors of business administration, minor in finance, Morehouse College
Family: Wife Sarah; daughter Karen; one grandson
Notable: Sansom’s mother, daughter and grandson were all born on Sept. 11. His father, J.J. Sansom, was a Tar Heel of the Week in 1979.