Alonzo F. Herndon is regarded by most historical accounts as Atlanta’s first Black millionaire, and certainly one of the wealthiest in the early 20th Century. As the founder and President of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, Herndon’s empire began small but grew to become an inspiration for Black business. Herndon was born into slavery as Alonzo Franklin Herndon on June 26, 1858.
His father was his mother’s White owner, so he was kept on the man’s farm. Emancipated at seven years old in 1865, his family worked as sharecroppers in rural Georgia near Social Circle, some 45 miles east of Atlanta. When he turned 20, Herndon left the farm with just $11 dollars and a year of schooling. Herndon soon opened his first business, a barbershop, in Jonesboro.
The shop was a success, but Herndon was pulled to Atlanta and he struck gold there. Herndon’s barbershop expanded to three shops, attracting Black Atlanta’s elite. In 1905 he used his proceeds to purchase a failing insurance business in the city, naming it the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. In 1922, the name was changed to the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and expanded to several states in the south such as Florida, Kansas, Kentucky and other states.
Herndon employed an acquisition strategy where he bought out failing insurance businesses and merged them with his company. Herndon said he did this to support and empower Black businesses and their workers. Herndon was also active in the community in other areas. He was a member of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Niagara Movement.
Herndon was also a founding member of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League. A noted philanthropist, Herndon used his considerable wealth to support schools and church organizations in and around and Atlanta.
Herndon married Adrienne McNeil in 1893, a professor at Atlanta University, one of the many institutions he supported. The couple had a son, Norris, who grew Atlanta Life to even greater heights after Herndon’s death. Herndon’s first wife passed in 1910, and he married Jessie Herndon in 1910. Mrs. Herndon and her stepson worked together in leading Atlanta Life to even greater success.
Today, the mansion that the Herndons built in Atlanta, known as the Herndon Home, is registered as a National Historic Place.