Alonzo Herndon, pioneering businessman


Alonzo Herndon
Date: 
Sat, 1858-06-26

*Alonzo Herndon was born on this date in 1858. He was an African American businessman.

Born in Walton, Georgia on a farm near Social Circle, to Sophenie Herndon, a slave. His father was Frank Herndon, a white farmer to who owned his mother. 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 his father’s farm. Herndon was a quick study academically. With one year of formal education he learned barbering in Jonesboro, Georgia, where in 1878 he opened his first barbershop.

Arriving in Atlanta in 1882, he worked his way to the top of the city's barbering trade owning and operating three barbershops. The Crystal Palace on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta was considered one of the finest barbershops in Atlanta. In 1893, he married a young woman from Atlanta's old black elite; Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil. She was a graduate and a faculty member of Atlanta University, teaching elocution and drama. He invested his barbering income in real estate, becoming by the early 1900's the largest black property owner in Atlanta. Adrienne Herndon designed the Herndon Home in Atlanta; she died from Addison's disease three months after the house was completed. Two years later, Herndon married Jessie Gillespie. His most significant business venture was launched in 1905, when he acquired what would become Atlanta Life Insurance Company, today the largest black-owned stockholder insurance company in America. Within months of its organization, Atlanta Mutual had several offices throughout Georgia. By 1916, the Association was reorganized as a stock company capitalized at $25,000. In 1922, the company's capitalization increased to $100,000, with President Herndon purchasing the entire new issue of stock. As a legal reserve company offering all classes of life insurance, the organization became known as Atlanta Life Insurance Company.

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 cities leading black 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 a delegate to the first conference of the National Negro Business League in 1890, and was involved in the 1905 Niagara Movement. 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. Alonzo Herndon died on his birthday in 1927 at the age of 69.

Reference:
Merritt, Carole, The Herndons: An Atlanta Family,
University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998

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