To be born into slavery was a great challenge for many melanated people in the U.S because it stripped off many liberties. It meant to buy freedom or receive manumission – the formal act of freeing from slavery, one had to work extra hard or offer years of dedicated service.
Even when free, life was often tough having to start from scratch. A few managed through sheer will, skill, vision and a dose of luck to escape poverty to become wealthy.
One of such men was African-American barber and entrepreneur, Alonzo Franklin Herndon. He was the founder and president of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, one of the most successful black-owned insurance businesses in the nation.
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When he died in 1927, he was also Atlanta’s wealthiest black citizen, owning more property than any other African American. Herndon also became Atlanta’s first Black millionaire.
Herndon was born into slavery in Walton County on June 26, 1858, to a white slave owning father; Frank Herndon and enslaved Black woman Sophenie. His father owned 25 slaves and never acknowledged paternity of him.
After the American Civil War (1861-65), Alonzo, then seven, and his family were emancipated in 1865; they included his younger brother, mother and maternal grandparents. Although free, the family entered freedom in destitution.
With only his mother being fit to work in the early years, young Herndon worked as a laborer, and a peddler, to help support his family. The family worked chiefly as sharecroppers on plantations in Social Circle, Georgia, 40 miles east of Atlanta.
Sharecropping kept them only a short step from slavery for many more years but Herndon exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit spending 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. There he opened his first barbershop spending about five years in Jonesboro, where he developed a thriving business and a good reputation as a barber.”
He arrived in Atlanta in early 1883 where 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.
By 1904 business had expanded such that Herndon was owning three shops in Atlanta. His shop at 66 Peachtree Street was advertised as the largest and best barbershop in the region and the fame of the staff spread wide.
Despite the aggression of whites against Blacks, they knew Blacks gave the best haircut. Herndon set up a wing with the Black barbers who served an exclusively white clientele composed of the city’s leading lawyers, judges, politicians, and businessmen under his watchful eye.
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.
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.”
Being a distinguished man, African American community looked to him for leadership in a number of areas. He was also noted for his involvement in and support of local institutions and charities devoted to advancing African American business and community life.
He rose up to calls by Booker T. Washington in Boston and W. E. B. Du Bois about projects to enable better prospects for African-Americans.
When the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906 broke out, his barbershop’s windows were smashed in. Thankfully, Herndon had gone home earlier but Black barbershop owners in his shop’s vicinity were killed by the angry mob.
In 1893 he married Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, a professor at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University). Their marriage helped Herndon become a refined man. The union produced his only child, Norris, who succeeded him as chief executive of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. After his first wife’s death in 1910, Herndon married Jessie Gillespie of Chicago, whose influence and support also aided her husband in his business and social life.
Herndon died in Atlanta on July 21, 1927, a few weeks after his 69th birthday. His son, Norris B. Herndon, became notable in his own right, expanding the insurance company into a multi-million-dollar empire.