Alonzo HerndonJul 1st, 2014 | By BHS | Category: Business
1858-1927 Alonzo Herndon parlayed success as a barber and as the owner of upscale barbershops into a business empire. His holdings eventually encompassed extensive real estate, and one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses and most successful insurance companies, Atlanta Life.
Peanuts, Molasses, and Axle Grease
Herndon was born a slave on June 26, 1858, in a small town near Atlanta, Georgia, known as Social Circle. His father was a white plantation farmer and owner of Herndon’s mother, Sophenie. When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Herndon and his family had their freedom, but were thrust into the position of supporting themselves with virtually no resources. Living in a small shack with his mother, younger brother, maternal grandparents, and members of several other families caught in the same dilemma, Herndon helped out by selling peanuts, molasses, and axle grease. Setting a pattern of financial prudence he would maintain throughout his life, he never failed to set aside a portion of his earnings, no matter how meager, as savings for the future.
Herndon received only a token amount of public schooling. When he was strong enough, at age 13, his former master—and biological father—offered him a job on the plantation as a farmhand, a position he held for the next seven years. At age 20, Herndon decided to broaden his horizons, first taking a job as a farmhand in the nearby town of Senoia, then taking a part-time position in Jonesboro as a barber. The job opened the door to his future. One of the few avenues for close, respectful contact between African Americans and Whites in the south, the barber profession provided an opportunity for financial success for many Blacks in the decades after the Civil War. Within six months, Herndon became a sought-after talent in his new trade. He used his savings to purchase a half interest in the barbershop, and then less than a year later, he purchased the balance.
Herndon’s business thrived. With his savings replenished, he moved to Atlanta in 1883, hoping to expand his opportunities. Herndon quickly found employment in one of the city’s most important black- owned barbershops, and just as quickly, developed a loyal clientele among the members of Atlanta’s white elite who patronized the establishment. He opened his own barbershop in Atlanta in 1886. Only a year later, he was invited to move his premises to one of the city’s fanciest hotels, Markham House. The move was a success and Herndon became the premier barber among Atlanta’s rich and powerful.
Connecting with the Elite
Over the next 10 years, Herndon’s Markham House establishment made him a wealthy man and allowed him to open two other upscale barbershops in the city In 1896, when the hotel and Herndon’s shop were destroyed by fire, he set about creating a new showcase barbershop at 66 Peachtree Street. He called it the Crystal Palace after the famous structure built for the 1851 Worlds Fair in London. Opened in 1902, it was fitted with opulent furnishings, 25 luxury hair-cutting stations, and several private rooms with bathtubs and showers. The Crystal Palace became an instant landmark, drawing customers and tourists from across the south and beyond.
Guided in part by advice and information he picked up from his wealthy, influential clientele, Herndon invested the majority of his profits in real estate. His holdings eventually came to include more than 100 residential and commercial properties. Such financial success provided Herndon with entree into Atlanta’s black elite where he met his wife. In 1893, he was married to Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, an Atlanta University drama instructor, scion of one of the city’s most important black families and widely regarded as a great beauty.
Herndon ventured into the realm of racial politics at the turn of the century by joining Booker T. Washington in establishing the National Negro Business League. Later, in 1905, he joined WE.B. Du Bois at the founding of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It also was in 1905 that Herndon made the significant decision to enter the world of insurance finance, and purchased the struggling Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association, which had been founded by a local African American pastor. In 1910, Herndon’s wife died unexpectedly. In mourning, he threw himself into managing his new business.
Merged with two other firms and renamed the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the firm prospered. Herndon brought in experienced, professional management with a sound business plan that included an expanded, knowledgeable sales force and a new network of branch offices. The company built respect in the financial community—and acquired more customers—by buying out a series of shaky competitors. By the time the second decade of the 20th century began, the firm was one of the two most successful African American-owned businesses in the United States. The other was John Merrick’s North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. Merrick, a contemporary of Herndon’s, also had begun his career as a barber. Herndon’s barbershops, his real estate holdings, and his insurance company flourished throughout the 1920s and survived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the south’s wealthiest men, he died on July 21, 1927.
In addition to serving as a role model and inspiration to generations of African American entrepreneurs, Herndon left a significant family legacy. He was succeeded as head of his financial empire by his second wife, Jessie Gillespie, then later by his son Norris. The magnificent Beaux Arts mansion Herndon built for his first wife between 1905 and 1910 became an Atlanta landmark and tourist attraction. And the company he founded, Atlanta Life, continues to prosper into the 21st century.