Born the son of a slave, Atlanta’s first black millionaire came from Walton County

Walton County's Black History

Alonzo Herndon did not let his humble beginnings define his life. In fact, he used those beginnings to fuel his determination to make something special of his life, to give back to his community and to leave behind a lasting legacy. That legacy is still alive today as the fruits of his labor continue to give back even almost a century after his death.

Herndon was born in Social Circle on June 26, 1858, the son of a slave who worked on a farm in Walton County.

“At the end of slavery, Herndon’s father, a white slave master, turned his family out into the world with nothing,” said Steve Brown, local historian with the Monroe Museum. Herndon took on the name of his father and set out to make his mark on the world. “He worked as a peddler, giving part of his meager earnings to his family, while saving some for himself.”

Brown said that in 1878, with just $11 in his pocket, Herndon moved to Coweta County, where he trained as a barber before moving to Jonesboro to open his first barber shop. In 1883, he moved to Atlanta, brought a stake in a barbershop on Marietta Street and by 1904 he owned three shops in Atlanta. These included one at 66 Peachtree Street that catered exclusively to whites and is said to have featured crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures.

Herdon went on to invest heavily in real estate and in 1905 he purchased a failing mutual aid association. This eventually became Atlanta Life Insurance Co – and that is when his legacy really began. The company expanded into Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, going on to make Herndon Atlanta’s first black millionaire and one of the wealthiest black men in the United States at that time.

Click or tap on the link below for a video telling the story of Alonzo Herndon and his legacy.

According to the history of the company on the website of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, “Herndon was a real estate investor, a world traveler, an amateur architect, and a pillar of black Atlanta — becoming its wealthiest black man. His mansion, built by black artisans in 1910, sits next to Morris Brown College and is listed on the national register of historic homes on Diamond Hill.

“The company that Herndon founded — with a $140 investment — was the outgrowth of one of the many benevolent societies catering to low and moderate-income consumers. Salesmen sold the company’s low-cost industrial insurance door-to-door at a time when, perhaps, they were the only black men passing through a southern town wearing suits and ties.

“Over time, the company continued to serve this customer base, occasionally buying similar companies when they fell on hard times. In order to assure its continued independence at a time when similar companies were sold, the company kept its ownership concentrated in the Herndon family and its affiliate, the Herndon Foundation.”

The Herndon Home in Vine City.
Photo credit: Keizers, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brown said that Herndon was a founding member of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League in 1900 and five years later he was one of the original members of the W.E.B. DuBois-led Niagara Movement. He was known to contribute to local organizations and causes, such as the Carrie Steele, Leonard Street and Diana Pace orphanages, Atlanta University, the first Congregational church, the Southview Cemetery and the Atlanta State Savings Bank.

Herndon married Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, a professor at Atlanta University, which later became Clark Atlanta University. They had one child, a son named Norris. In 1910, as a symbol of his wealth, Herndon built a palatial classical revival mansion in what is now Atlanta’s Vine City. Herndon Home, located at 587 University Place NW, was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2000.[7][ It is open for tours to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Herndon Stadium at Morris Brown College was also named in Herndon’s honor. It was the field hockey venue for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Herndon died in 1927 at the age of 69. His son succeeded him as the chief executive of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Today, “the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation” continues the legacy of social responsibility and giving back through education programs, mentoring, and preparing the next generation of entrepreneurs,” according to Atlanta Insurance Company’s history.

Find out more about the history of Alonzo Herndon at this link.

Find out more about the Herndon Foundation at this link.

Find out more about the Herndon Director’s Institute at this link.

Credits for the information:

The Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the Herndon Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcast, and Steve Brown with the Monroe Museum.

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