In honor of Black History Month, LexisNexis Risk Solutions is proud to share the story of an African-American entrepreneur who founded and built one of the United States’ most well-known and successful insurance businesses in the country.
[Excerpted from the New Georgia Encyclopedia]
Alonzo Herndon was born into slavery in Walton County, Georgia on June 26, 1858, and grew up on a farm in Social Circle, forty miles east of Atlanta. Emancipated at the end of the Civil War (1861-65), he was sent away from his birthplace by his white father and—along with his mother, younger brother, and maternal grandparents—entered freedom homeless and destitute. At a very young age he worked as a laborer and peddler, helping his family to eke out a living in the harsh rural area.
Building a Business
At the age of 20, Herndon left Social Circle with eleven dollars of savings and about a year of schooling. He stopped initially in the community of Senoia, where he worked as a farmhand and began learning the barbering trade. After a few months Herndon migrated to Jonesboro, and opened his first barbershop. He spent about five years in Jonesboro, where he developed a thriving business and a good reputation as a barber, before moving again and eventually settling in Atlanta. Arriving in early 1883, he secured employment as a barber in a shop 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.
Herndon’s barbering business expanded, and by 1904 he owned three shops in Atlanta, including one that was advertised as the largest and best barbershop in the region. According to the Atlanta Journal, Herndon and his all-black barbering staff were “known from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbers in the South.” As proprietor, Herndon personally saw to the barbering services provided to some of the most important figures in the state. His business was spectacularly successful, and he invested his earnings in real estate in Atlanta and in Florida.
Finding Success in Insurance
As his personal fortune grew, Herndon entered the field of insurance. In 1905 he purchased a failing mutual aid association, which he incorporated as the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. With Herndon taking the help as president and chief stockholder, the small association expanded its assets from $5,000 in 1905 to more than $400,000 by 1922. In 1922 the company was reorganized as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and achieved legal reserve status, a position enjoyed by only four other black insurance companies at that time. The firm grew rapidly in the 1920s, expanding its operations into a half dozen new states, including Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. Herndon also sought to save other failing black enterprises. Whenever possible, he reinsured the policyholders and merged the faltering business into Atlanta Life in an effort to conserve confidence in black businesses and save jobs for black men and women. Despite several crises in the industry and lean times generally, Atlanta Life under Herndon’s leadership survived and progressed into the next decades as a secure and prosperous business.
At the time of his death in 1927, Herndon was also Atlanta’s wealthiest black citizen, owning more property than any other African American. Admired and respected by many, he was noted for his involvement in and support of local institutions and charities devoted to advancing African American business and community life.
To learn more about Alonzo Herndon’s true rags to riches story, visit the New Georgia Encyclopedia webpage.