Herndon, Alonzo Franklin
Alonzo Franklin Herndon
American executive Alonzo Franklin Herndon (1858–1927) founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, one of the leading insurers in the American South. Born into slavery, he belonged to the first generation of successful African American entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century.
Worked Fields as a Child
Herndon's early life and family history represent a fascinating microcosm of black American life in the pre-and post-Civil War South. Herndon was born on July 21, 1858, to Sophenie Herndon, a slave. His father was Frank Herndon, the white farmer to whose Social Circle, Georgia land Sophenie was restricted. The young Herndon was one of 25 slaves owned by his father, who never acknowledged paternity. He also had a younger brother, Thomas, as well as a number of half-brothers and half-sisters born to other slave women on the Herndon farm.
Herndon was four years old when President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, freed the slaves in the Southern states that had seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, but was seven when Frank Herndon released them when the war ended. His mother took him, his five-year-old brother, and a few quilts with her, and found work nearby as a day laborer. With the Southern economy wrecked, she was forced to accept payment in molasses, potatoes, or other provisions in order to feed her sons. She eventually went back to work on the Herndon farm, living in a one-room log cabin with four other former slave families and being paid pitifully meager wages. To make ends meet, Herndon and his brother worked in the fields as well alongside their mother and grandparents, and he had very little formal schooling as a result. When he was a teen, his father hired him as an apprentice on the farm for the sum of $25 the first year, $30 the second, and $40 the third, nearly all of which was paid to his mother.
Ran Away from Farm
By the time he was 20, Herndon had managed to save the sum of $11, and ran away from Social Circle with it. "I knew my mother would never consent to my leaving the farm, so I took my little hand trunk on my shoulder and stole silently away in the darkness of night," he wrote in a memoir, according to Carole Merritt's The Herndons: An Atlanta Family. On that day in 1878, he walked all the way to Jonesboro, Georgia, but his first stop was a town that had telegraph wires running overhead, something he had never before seen and which unsettled him. "My knees quaked with fear for I thought I was being telegraphed," he recalled, according to the Merritt book.
Herndon trained as a barber, and had his first small shop in Jonesboro. Looking to make his fortune in a place that offered better opportunities for blacks, Herndon relocated to Rome, Georgia, and then Chattanooga, Tennessee, but at one point was so discouraged by his business setbacks that he thought about quitting altogether and taking in a job a plow factory. In 1882, he moved to Atlanta, and found a post with a highly regarded local barber. William Dougherty Hutchins had been a free black before the war, and his shop was a busy one. Herndon eventually bought into a partnership, but it was later dissolved—perhaps due to Hutchins's financial setbacks, which taught Herndon to always be cautious about business expansion. Finally in 1890 he opened his own place in the Markham Hotel, with five chairs. Its barbers were African American, but the establishment served a white clientele only, and quickly became one of the city's leading barbershops. "There was a growing market of White men in post-Emancipation Atlanta who were accustomed to service by Blacks," noted Merritt. "Herndon was eager to capitalize on it."
Black Atlanta's Power Couple
Herndon's relatively rapid rise as one of Atlanta's rising young African American business leaders was cemented in 1893 when he married Adrienne McNeil, of Augusta, Georgia. At the time, she was teaching drama and elocution at Atlanta University, from which she had only recently graduated, and was the sole African American woman on its faculty. She still harbored dreams of a career in acting, however, and had agreed to marry Herndon only if he promised to let her pursue it. Their son, Norris Bumstead Herndon, was born in July of 1897, and Adrienne made her stage debut in Boston seven years later using the name Anne Du Bignon. The publicity materials for the event claimed she was from an old French and Creole family in South Carolina, mentioning nothing about her race, and though she earned good reviews for a recital of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, no other roles came her way.
Twice Herndon's businesses were destroyed by fire: once in 1896 after a gas stove across the street from the Markham ignited its building and leveled the hotel, and again in 1902 when his new place on Marietta Street ignited in a fire that destroyed an entire city block. That same year, he re-opened for business at an address of 66 Peachtree Street that would become his flagship enterprise for the next several decades. Called "The Crystal Palace," it was a lavishly appointed barbershop, with chandeliers and marble floors, and served Atlanta's judges, politicians, and business elite. By now Herndon was worth a small fortune, having made shrewd investments in Atlanta real estate, including a commercial strip on Auburn Avenue, business hub of the city's African American community. He also owned a hundred or so residential rental properties in the city.
Ventured into Insurance Business
Because he possessed financial capital, Herndon was approached by two local ministers who asked him to help save their fledgling insurance company, the Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association. For dues of 25 cents weekly, a payee's beneficiary would receive a sum up to $50 upon death, which paid for funeral expenses. Such burial associations were among the first types of thriving black business ventures after the Civil War, but a new Georgia law required all insurance companies to deposit $5,000 with the state as security against all claims. Herndon bought the business for $140 in 1905, and when he deposited the sum according to the new state regulatory rules, his company became the first in the state to meet the new requirement.
Herndon set out to make the Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association into a leading provider of life insurance for African Americans in the South. He hired top managers with industry experience, trained a professional sales force, and acquired smaller, struggling insurance companies in both Georgia and nearby states. His new venture became the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association, and by 1907 had 23 offices across Georgia.
Struck by Tragedy
Herndon and his wife built an opulent Beaux-Arts Classical mansion near Atlanta University that was finished in 1910. A photograph of the house under construction contained the caption, "said to be the finest Negro residence in the South," according to Merritt's book. Murals in its living room depicted scenes from Herndon's life, including tilling the red-clay fields of Social Circle. "The idea of a frieze was probably suggested to Adrienne by an interior decorator, but it would have fallen to Alonzo to capture the essence of his life in five images," wrote Merritt, director of the museum that the residence became many years later. "Significantly, Alonzo chose field labor rather than barbering to depict his critical path to success." Tragically, Adrienne died the same year the house was completed after a bout with Addison's disease, a glandular condition. Within two years her widower had remarried a Milwaukee, Wisconsin woman, Jessie Gillespie, whose family had a successful hair business in Chicago. An extended European honeymoon was partly spent gathering furnishings to refit his Crystal Palace.
Herndon continued his to expand his insurance empire. In 1913, he signed a partnership agreement with a Kentucky firm, Standard Life. "My aim," he explained in a speech that year delivered at the Tuskegee Institute and quoted in the Merritt book, "has been for several years to try to get as many of our people together to cooperate in business and along all other lines.… The great trouble in establishing insurance companies among our people is that it is difficult for our people to understand the advantage of pulling together for the common and for their own good." In 1915, he ventured into Alabama, and the acquired another Georgia insurance company, Union Mutual, the largest black-owned insurer in the state. A 1916 reorganization made Herndon's company a shareholder-owned one, but he held the majority of stock. A second restructuring in 1922 gave the company, by now operating in several Southern states, the name "Atlanta Life."
Became Leading Philanthropist
Perhaps recalling his early years of extreme deprivation, Herndon treated his employees well and became a generous supporter of a number of Atlanta charitable organizations. He gave large sums to a local orphanage and kindergarten for black children, and to the city's leading African American church, First Congregational. He was also involved in the Southview Cemetery Association, Atlanta Loan and Trust, and the Atlanta State Savings Bank, and was a key investor in Gate City Drug Company, the first black-owned drugstore on Auburn Avenue. In his leisure time, he relaxed at an orange-grove estate he had acquired in Lake County, Florida, which he improved and sold some years later at an impressive profit.
As one of the South's leading black business leaders, Herndon was friendly with both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. He was even a delegate to the first conference of the National Negro Business League organized by Washington in 1890, and was involved in Du Bois's 1905 Niagara Movement, a conference held in Fort Erie, Ontario that eventually led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His son was more reluctant to follow in his footsteps, however, for Norris Herndon had inherited Adrienne's passion for the stage. Norris eventually settled down and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard in 1921, where he was one of two blacks in his class.
Extolled as a Pioneer for Other Blacks
Herndon died at home in Atlanta on July 21, 1927, at the age of 69. His funeral was an extraordinary event in the city, and Atlanta Life's Memphis chief, George W. Lee, was one of a lengthy list of eulogists who paid tribute to the company founder. "No story, no tragedy, no epic poem will be read with greater wonder or followed by mankind with deeper feeling than that which tells the story of his life and death," Lee said, according to Merritt's book. Fittingly, Herndon had asked that his pallbearers be drawn from among his barber staff.
In 1933, Jessie and Norris Herndon turned the ownership of the Crystal Palace over to its employees. It remained a segregated establishment until it closed in 1972. Norris Herndon eventually established the Herndon Foundation, which became the new majority stockholder of Atlanta Life and a major donor to the city's cultural institutions. Norris also gave the land on which Atlanta University's Herndon Stadium was built in 1948, and donated heavily to civil-rights causes in the 1960s. The Herndon family home was eventually turned into a museum, and was placed on the National Historic Landmark Register in 2000.
Merritt, Carole, The Herndons: An Atlanta Family, University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 22, 1999, p. A1; August 18, 2002, p. G1.