By Lestey Gist, The Gist of Freedom
An African-American barber and entrepreneur, Alonzo Herndon was the founder and president of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, one of the most successful black-owned insurance businesses in the nation. At the time of his death in 1927, he was also Atlanta’s wealthiest black citizen, owning more property than any other African-American. Admired and respected by many, he was noted for his involvement in and support of local institutions and charities devoted to advancing African-American business and community life.
Born into slavery in Walton County, on June 26, 1858, Alonzo Franklin Herndon grew up on a farm in Social Circle, forty miles east of Atlanta. Emancipated at the end of the Civil War in 1865, he was sent away from his birthplace by his father. At age seven, young Herndon, along with his mother, younger brother, and maternal grandparents, entered freedom homeless and destitute. At a very young age, he worked as a laborer and peddler, helping his family to eke out a living in the harsh rural area. Like so many newly emancipated blacks, the Herndons engaged in sharecropping—a system that kept them only a short step from slavery for a couple of years. Even as a boy, however, Herndon exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit. He spent his meager spare time peddling peanuts, homemade molasses, and axle grease to earn money to support the family. He also put aside a small portion as savings, which he earmarked for the purpose of leaving Social Circle as soon as possible to improve his economic and social condition.
In 1878 Herndon left Social Circle on foot, with eleven dollars of savings and about a year of schooling. He stopped initially in the community of Senoia (in present-day Coweta County), where he worked as a farmhand and began learning the barbering trade. After a few months, Herndon migrated to the town of Jonesboro, in Clayton County. He opened his first barbershop and spent about five years in Jonesboro, where he developed a thriving business and a good reputation as a barber, before migrating to several other locales and eventually settling in Atlanta. Arriving in early 1883, he secured employment as a barber in a shop on Marietta Street owned by William Dougherty Hutchins, an African American. After six months Herndon purchased half interest in the shop, entering into a partnership with one of the few free blacks operating barbering establishments since before the Civil War.
Herndon’s barbering business expanded, and by 1904 he owned three shops in Atlanta. His shop at 66 Peachtree Street, outfitted with crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures, was advertised as the largest and best barbershop in the region. According to the Atlanta Journal, Herndon and his all-black barbering staff were “known from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbers in the South.” Following the racial practices of the era, the black barbers served an exclusively white clientele composed of the city’s leading lawyers, judges, politicians, and businessmen. As proprietor, Herndon personally saw to the barbering services provided to some of the most important figures in the state, earning their acquaintance and good will. His success in barbering was spectacular, and as his earnings grew, he invested in real estate in Atlanta and in Florida. Eventually, he acquired more than 100 houses, a large block of commercial property on Auburn Avenue, and a large estate in Tavares, Florida. At his death in 1927, his real estate was assessed at nearly $325,000.
As his personal fortune grew, Herndon entered the field of insurance. In 1905 he purchased a failing mutual aid association, which he incorporated as the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. With Herndon playing a pivotal role as president and chief stockholder, the small association expanded its assets from $5,000 in 1905 to more than $400,000 by 1922. In 1922 the company was reorganized as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and achieved legal reserve status, a position enjoyed by only four other black insurance companies at that time. The firm grew rapidly in the 1920s, expanding its operations into a half dozen new states, including Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. Herndon also sought to save other failing black enterprises. Whenever possible, he reinsured the policyholders and merged the faltering business into Atlanta Life in an effort to conserve confidence in black businesses and save jobs for black men and women. Despite several crises in the industry and lean times generally, Atlanta Life under Herndon’s leadership survived and progressed into the next decades as a secure and prosperous business.
Influenced by Booker T. Washington and the movement to expand black business involvement, Alonzo Herndon’s leadership of Atlanta Life blended ideals of racial self-help and independent entrepreneurship. He transformed mutual aid and benevolent societies, church organizations, secret associations, and other social endeavors into more efficient business operations.
founder and first president, Alonzo Herndon’s leadership of Atlanta Life blended ideals of racial self-help and independent entrepreneurship. He transformed mutual aid and benevolent societies, church organizations, secret associations, and other social endeavors into more efficient business operations. Influenced by Booker T. Washington and the movement to expand black business involvement, Herndon joined men like John Merrick, organizer of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company of Durham, North Carolina, and Samuel Wilson Rutherford, founder of the National Benefit Insurance Company in Washington, D.C., to solidify the link between mutual aid and capitalism.
The Herndon Home museum, a memorial to the Alonzo Franklin Herndon family. This 15 room beau arts classical style home was built in 1910 by Alonzo Franklin Herndon, one of the most successful businessmen in the country, the first black millionaire in the country, founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company; and his wife Adrienne McNeil Herndon, an aspiring actress, and one of the first 3 black professors at Atlanta University. Designed by Adrienne Herndon and constructed by African American craftsmen, this home was designated as a National Historic Landmark in the year 2000. It is one of a very small number of historic properties in America that “have exceptional value to the heritage of the United States.”