He Started As A Barber, Became Atlanta’s First Black Millionaire

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.

Alonzo Herndon

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.” 

Erected by the Georgia Historical Society, Georgia State University, Atlanta Student Movement Veterans of the 1960s, and District Two, Atlanta City Council
Location: 100 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta

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.

Morris Brown’s Herndon Stadium is named for Alonzo Herndon. During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games the facility hosted field hockey.

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.

8 comments
  1. Billy
    Billy
    September 24, 2019 at 8:52 am

    Wow…great story. Very inspiring and leaves us all without excuse.

    Reply
  2. Troy
    Troy
    September 25, 2019 at 12:43 am

    This was rich! I’m truly inspired by his life.

    Reply
  3. Samuel Dolcine
    Samuel Dolcine
    September 25, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    This is incredible! What an inspiration!

    Reply
  4. Clayton Taylor
    Clayton Taylor
    September 25, 2019 at 5:02 pm

    Very empowering and informative.

    Reply
  5. Errecca
    Errecca
    September 25, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    Hello there,
    This news is very very, inspiring, uplifting and a testimate of the business, personal and professional indevors of our people.
    Mr. Herndon is a beacon of light and a GIANT in our community!
    Not only was he present in business, he was active in the Civic duties , for people of color, as a great leader among those during his times.

    Reply
    • Debbie
      Debbie
      September 29, 2019 at 11:28 pm

      I agree.

      Reply
  6. Karen Taylor
    Karen Taylor
    September 25, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    Thank you D’Juan Hopewell for bringing this amazing legacy of Mr. Alonzo Herndon! I never heard of him or his incredible life, struggle and success! And then to ensure that Blacks make it and succeed is outstanding and should be known globally. Keep up the great work D’Juan!
    Nefu KaMa’at (Karen Taylor)

    Reply
  7. AkaChi
    AkaChi
    September 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Great stories.

    Reply
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