Photo credits: The Atlanta Life Insurance Company for the AAREG
On September 21, 1905, the Atlanta Life Insurance Company was founded. They are the largest Black-owned stockholder insurance company in America.
Founded by a former slave, Alonzo Franklin Herndon, he purchased a small benevolent association for $140 and, with the acquisition and reorganization of two other companies in that year forming the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. In June 1996, Charles Cornelius began as the fifth president and chief executive officer and carries on the company’s proud legacy.
Currently, Roosevelt Giles serves as president, Atlanta Life has assets of over $200 million and operates in 17 states.
Early Humble Beginnings
Atlanta Life began as a small insurance associated with a capital investment of $5,000. For many years it operated as a mutual assessment enterprise. The policyholders, exceeding 23,000 by the end of 1909, provided the majority of the revenue through premium payments and periodic assessments.
The company offered one contract, an industrial health and accident policy, which paid a small sum upon the death of a policyholder. In 1916 the firm strengthened its financial base by becoming a stockholder organization. Using his personal resources to support the enterprise, Herndon purchased approximately 90 percent of Atlanta Life’s stock.
Generational Progress and Leadership
Herndon died in 1927 and was succeeded as president by his son, Norris, a graduate of Atlanta University and Harvard University. Groomed by his father to assume the reins of Atlanta Life, Norris Herndon led the firm for more than four and a half decades.
His tenure was characterized by cautious growth, prudent investments, sensible management, and careful economies that permitted few frills. The sales area expanded from nine to eleven states, assets increased to almost $54 million by 1960, and insurance in force grew to $176 million.
When Norris Herndon retired in 1973, the company’s financial standing showed $84.5 million in assets and more than $346 million in insurance in force. Norris Herndon believed that even in postwar America black businesses remained vulnerable to the adversities of a segregated society.
In 1950 he created as a memorial to his parents the Herndon Foundation—a nonprofit corporation to which the controlling shares of stock would be bequeathed at his death. The earnings of the foundation were earmarked for religious, educational, scientific, and literary purposes.
The establishment of the foundation also ushered in an era of support for the increasing efforts of African Americans to secure civil rights, economic dignity, and progress in general.
Atlanta Life supported the growing protest movement in the 1950s by offering employment to fired teachers, posting bail for jailed students, and providing meeting space and printing and communications facilities to civil rights groups.
Sources: The World Book Encyclopedia (1996 World Book Inc.), Alexa B. Henderson, “Alonzo F. Herndon and Black Insurance in Atlanta,” Atlanta Historical Bulletin 21 (1977), Alexa B. Henderson, Atlanta Life Insurance Company: Guardian of Black Economic Dignity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990).