When Alonzo Herndon died in 1927, he was Atlanta’s wealthiest black man, respected for his support of local black charities.
But the beginning of his life couldn’t have been more different. In 1858, Herndon was born a slave near Social Circle, about 40 miles east of Atlanta.
His mother was a slave, his father a white slave owner. When the Civil War ended, Herndon’s father forced Alonzo, his mother, brother and grandparents to all leave.
To support his family, Herndon sold peanuts, molasses, and even axle grease. Eventually he opened a barbershop for whites in Jonesboro. By 1904, he owned three barbershops in Atlanta and Herndon and his black staff were known as the South’s best barbers. But racial practices wouldn’t allow Herndon’s shops to service blacks.
In 1905, Herndon established Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association, later known as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. That first year, he opened 23 offices in Georgia with more than 211 employees.
Today, Atlanta Life Insurance operates in 17 states with assets over $200 million and 2 million customers. It is still one of America’s largest black financial institutions.