Barbering can be a perfect springboard into wealth, believe it or not. Alonzo Herndon was a barber who became Atlanta’s first Black millionaire and at the time of his death, was the wealthiest Black person in Atlanta. Not bad for a barber. Herndon, however, had to work his way up even to being an Atlanta barber — he was born into slavery in Walton County, Ga in 1858. After the Civil War his family was completely destitute, without land or steady employment. Herndon’s family sharecropped and made it as best they could. That was Alonzo Herndon’s floor in life, he created the ceiling.
At the age of 11 Herndon left Social Circle, Ga with $11 in his pockets and about one year of formal education. He worked as a farmhand and eventually began to learn the barber trade. Herndon later opened a shop in Jonesboro, Ga. In time he would go to work in an Atlanta shop owned by another Black barber, William Dougherty Hutchins. After six months Herndon purchased half interest in the shop and continued expanding his business, eventually owning three shops. Chief among them was his shop at 66 Peachtree Street. The shop featured crystal chandeliers and gold fixtures. The Atlanta Journal highlighted Herndon and his all-Black barbering staff for being “known from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbers in the South.”
Herndon’s success in barbering led to him investing in real estate in Atlanta and in Florida. Herndon would ultimately acquire more than 100 houses, commercial property in the city and a large estate in Tavares, Florida. At the time of his death, Herndon’s real estate holding were assessed at well over $300,000. The insurance business was next, for Herndon. He started by buying a failing mutual aid association in 1905, incorporating it as the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. In 1922 the company was reorganized as Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which would became one of only five Black insurance companies at that time to hold legal reserve status. Atlanta Life would expand to Florida, Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Tennessee. Essential to Herndon’s business model was saving other failing Black businesses. Herndon would often reinsure policyholders, merging the failing companies into Atlanta Life. Those efforts helped to save the jobs of many Black people.
Alonzo Herndon’s life story literally spans from slavery to millionaire status. Herndon leveraged his success as a barber to become a real estate investor. Herndon leveraged his success in real estate to become an insurance mogul. All the while, Herndon was careful to invest in Black institutions and Black people. In addition to employing Black people, Herndon was present at the founding meeting of the National Negro Business League, convened by Booker T. Washington. Among the 29 men who attended the founding meeting of the Niagara Movement, convened by W. E. B. Du Bois, was Alonzo Herndon. Herndon was also very generous to Atlanta University, along with various other local organizations. Alonzo Herndon’s legacy is one worth remembering.