The legacy of Alonzo Herndon

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry.

History loves rule-changers, game-changers and world-changers, and Alonzo Franklin Herndon elegantly achieved all three.

Born into slavery in 1858, Herndon rose to become Georgia’s first black millionaire and he built an industry along the way. Recognizing a need for low-to-moderate income earners to have access to life insurance, Herndon founded Atlanta Life Insurance Company with a $140 investment. Today, that company spans 17 states and remains the only African-American owned and privately held stock company in the country with a financial services platform that includes asset management and insurance.

Emancipated as a small boy following the Civil War, Herndon and his family began their free life in abject poverty. They all worked as sharecroppers and young Alonzo also helped out by peddling goods and working odd jobs. Due to these financial constraints, he managed just one year of formal education in his entire life.

He reportedly left his hometown with just $11, which he used to begin learning how to become a barber. A quick learner with a natural business mind, he eventually owned three highly successful barber shops in and around Atlanta. The flagship shop, called the Crystal Palace, featured gold fixtures, marble floors and crystal chandeliers, and catered to the city’s elite white businessmen.

In a painful irony, Herndon could not enter the front door of his own business due to Jim Crowe Laws. Still, he saw his customer base as opportunities to learn, he enjoyed picking their brains while he cut their hair and he used this knowledge to build an astonishing legacy.

He began purchasing real estate and eventually owned 100 properties, including a stately mansion he helped design that became his family’s home. Today, you can tour that home and appreciate its fine details.

In 1908 Herndon bought a floundering mutual aid association and incorporated it into the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. According to the company’s website, “Salesmen sold the company’s low-cost industrial insurance door-to-door at a time when, perhaps, they were the only black men passing through a southern town wearing suits and ties.”

That the company continues to flourish 113 years later is a testament to Herndon’s business acumen and a commitment to the values he championed. In addition to his businesses, Herndon established a foundation that has given more than $5M to churches, non-profits and educational institutions.