Alfonzo Herndon was born into slavery on June 26, 1858, on a farm in Walton County, GA. After sharecropping as a teenager, he moved to the Atlanta area and became the region's premier barber at a time when black-owned barbershops primarily served prominent, white clients. Barbering was one of the few professions available to freed African American men that provided upward mobility. Herndon owned and operated three barbershops and invested in real estate in the business district as well as houses in Atlanta. He became one of the first African American millionaires. Segregation and Jim Crow laws resulted in a robust Black business movement, and the growth of a black middle class.
Herndon married Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, a graduate of Atlanta University (now Morris Brown College) as well as a drama and elocution professor. Their only child, a son, Norris was born in 1897. One of Herndon's shops was damaged during the Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906, and this had a profound impact on the family. Adrienne planned an elaborate new home for the family near Atlanta University overlooking the city, but she died shortly after they moved in. The mansion is now the Herndon House Museum, a National Historic Landmark.
In 1905, Herndon purchased the Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association and renamed it the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Benevolent societies first developed on plantations in order to care for the sick and bury the dead with dignity. This occurred at a time when there was a philosophy of self-help and philanthropy in the black community exemplified by educator Booker T. Washington. The company was expanded under Herndon's leadership to other southern states as he purchased similar ailing companies, becoming the largest insurance company owned and operated by African Americans in the United States. Herndon and Atlanta Life assisted in growing a large African American middle class in Atlanta and beyond. Herndon was a pillar of the community and a philanthropist.
In 1920, the Atlanta Life Insurance Company building was developed at 148 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. After Herndon's death in 1927, his son, Norris B. Herndon, a Harvard MBA graduate, headed the company, and funded civil rights efforts, including the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, Atlanta University, and the National Urban League. The company is still in existence today doing business as Atlanta Life Financial Group. In 1952, the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation was established and seeks to prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs, increase diversity in the corporate boardroom, and create a more equitable seat at the table for everyone.
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