We’ve devoted a considerable amount of time and space to the Niagara Movement over the last several weeks, including two women who played pivotal roles in an organization that paved the way to the NAACP. These recent profiles featured many of the founding members—W.E.B. Du Bois, Lafayette Hershaw and Clement Morgan—and we conclude with a few words about Alonzo Franklin Herndon, a man born into slavery who became among the first Black millionaires.
Herndon was born on June 26, 1856, in Walton County, Georgia, and the son of Sophenie, an enslaved woman, and presumably his white father wealthy slaveholder, Frank Herndon. He was among the 25 people enslaved by Herndon who never acknowledged paternity to him. He was 7 when his family was emancipated in 1865. At a very early age, he began working as a common laborer and peddler to help support his destitute family.
The family survived as sharecroppers on plantations in Social Circle, Georgia, about 40 miles east of Atlanta. In 1878, according to the Herndon Foundation, Herndon left Social Circle on foot, armed with $11 in savings and about a year of schooling. “He stopped initially in the community of Senoia (located in present-day Coweta County), where he worked as a farmhand and began learning the barbering trade. After a few months Herndon migrated to Jonesboro in Clayton County. He opened his first barbershop in Jonesboro, where he spent the next five years developing a thriving business and reputation as a barber before moving on to Atlanta. Arriving in early 1883, Mr. Herndon secured employment as a barber in a shop on Marietta Street owned by William Dougherty Hutchins, an African-American. After six months Herndon purchased half interest in the shop, entering into a partnership with one of the few free blacks operating barbering establishments since before the Civil War.”
Ever enterprising, Herndon expanded his business exponentially and by 1904, he owned three shops in Atlanta. One of them, on Peachtree Street, was luxuriously appointed with crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures, and earned a reputation as the largest and best barbershop in the region. As the Atlanta Journal noted, Herndon and his staff were “known from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbers in the South.” Of course, his shops adhered unwaveringly to the racial customs of the day, serving an exclusive white clientele of the city’s prominent civic leaders.
Herndon personally attended to the most prestigious members and thereby earned their acquaintance and good will.
The Foundation observed that “[h]is success in barbering was spectacular, and as his earnings grew, he invested in real estate in Atlanta and in Florida. Eventually he acquired more than 100 houses, a large block of commercial property on Auburn Avenue, and a large estate in Tavares, Florida.”
In 1893, Herndon married Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, a professor at Atlanta University, from whom he acquired the refinement consistent with his wealth. They had one son, Norris, named after Herndon’s brother. In 1905, just about the time he began his association with the Niagara Movement, Herndon began investing in the insurance business, purchasing a failing mutual aid association that he later incorporated as the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. By 1922, with him at the helm, the company had grown rapidly, and was one of the few such Black-owned companies in the nation.
Not only was he successful in keeping his own company afloat, Herndon rescued others, often reinsuring policyholders and merging a faltering business into his company.
After his wife died in 1910, Herndon married Jessie Gillespie of Chicago. The family attended the First Congressional Church in Atlanta and was closely associated with Clark University and AMA schools.
Herndon died in 1927, at 69. His son took over his businesses and expanded them into a veritable empire. According to the Foundation, “At his death in 1927, his real estate was assessed at nearly $325,000.”
The Herndon legacy is quite extensive in Georgia, particularly in Atlanta ,where his home was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2000. A large, impressive mansion, it was built in 1910 and is at 587 University Place NW in the Vine City neighborhood. There was once a housing project named in his honor, but it was demolished. Herndon Stadium, however, at Morris Brown College remains and was the venue for field hockey during the 1996 Summer Olympics.