Canadian football star, businessman, lawyer, judge and community servant Merl F. Code has a lot of titles, but maybe even more Greenville “firsts:”
- First African American to serve as Chairman of the Board of Governors for the University Center of Greenville.
- First African American Municipal Court Judge.
- First African American to become Chairman of the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce.
In 1994, Code added another trailblazing title to his career of service when he became the first African American to serve as Chair of the United Way of Greenville County Board of Directors.
Prior to Code’s chairmanship, United Way’s volunteer leadership was overwhelmingly—and embarrassingly—white and male.
“When I first got involved with the Chamber in the early 1980s, I found the most progressive business folks in the Chamber and at that time we had a lot of cross-pollination—Chamber folks were involved with United Way and they were involved in the Urban League. So when you talk about changing the plight of people who had historically not had opportunities, all of those organizations in our community were vital to that.”
Code said fellow civic leaders Arnold Burrell (1991 United Way Board Chair) Champ Covington and Roy Abercrombie, among others, were mentors and key to his involvement in Greenville.
“They were my rooting section and encouraged me to get more involved with the community,” he said. “They kept thinking that I could be of some value to this community in leadership roles. They pushed me more than I pushed myself.”
Four years after his tenure as chair, Code was instrumental in the founding of United Way of Greenville County’s African American Leadership group, helping the next generation of Black leaders get plugged in to United Way’s work. The group is now in its 24th year of service.
“We started with about 50 people and from there it just continued to grow and grow and grow,” he said. “It has become quite a formidable group.”
While officially “retired,” Code was called back into service for his community in 2020 to serve as Co-Chair of the Greenville Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commission alongside TD Bank’s David Lominack (2018 United Way Board Chair).
A joint effort by the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Greenville County, and Urban League of the Upstate, the REEM Commission grew from ongoing community conversations to identify and address systemic racial barriers in Greenville County by understanding the data revealing stark disparities. The group plans to collaboratively develop systems-level strategies, partnering with community institutions to implement significant change in the areas of racial inequities, social justice, and other key gaps identified as focus areas of the Black community.
“When the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Greenville County, and the Urban League of the Upstate issued a joint statement in mid-June condemning racism in light of the murder of George Floyd, we suggested the formation of this Commission to examine racial inequities in Greenville County, and improving the odds of economic mobility for African Americans in our community,” said Code. “To the community, it is a way of making sure that we have made opportunities for all of those who are here. That there are no impediments for growth. If there are, we should try to remove them. We ought to make certain that every citizen has the opportunity to be involved in this community to their utmost potential.”
In United Way’s centennial year, Code was awarded the organization’s highest honor for community leadership, the United Way Spirit Award.