Alonzo Franklin Herndon
1858 - Born a slave.
1882 - Arrives in Atlanta.
1883 - Operates barber shop with a partner.
1902 - Opens a barber shop at 66 Peachtree Street. which became one of the most elegant establishments in Atlanta.
1905 - Starts Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
1905 - The Niagra Movement (later NAACP) is organized by W.E.B. DuBois-They were considered radical because they demanded action. Atlantans George A. Towns, John Hope, Alonzo Herndon and his son Norris Herndon attend.
1920 - The company moved to 148 Auburn Ave.
1927 - Alonzo Herndon dies at 69 years old.
Born in 1858 on a Georgia plantation, Alonzo was seven years old when the Civil War was over. With a few household goods his entire extended family set out with their newly freed status and uncertain prospects. The family's former master and genetic father offered Herndon a job as a farmhand at age 13. At age 20 in Senoia, Georgia, he learned the barbering trade and was able to rent his own space in a barbershop and then open a small barbershop in Jonesboro. Being offered a position by the black proprietor of Dougherty Hutchins' barbershop, catering to a wealthy, white clientele, Herndon moved to Atlanta. In less than a year he was made a partner and the shop's name was changed to Hutchins & Herndon. Three years later, in 1886, Herndon rented a shop of his own and one year later moved to the city's prestigious Markham House Hotel. In 1896 the beautiful Markham Hotel burned down, leading Herndon to open another shop.
In 1893, he married a young woman from Atlanta's old black elite--Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, a graduate and a faculty member of Atlanta University teaching elocution and drama.
In 1902, at 66 Peachtree Street, around the corner from Auburn Avenue, he opened a barber shop that become known as one of the most elegant establishments in Atlanta. The shop is described as measuring 24 by 102 feet, having 25 chairs and 18 baths with tubs and showers. It was outfitted with crystal chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors and fittings, massive front doors of solid mahogany, and beveled plate glass and became a legend 'known from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbershop in the South.' It was an unofficial city attraction, since tourists as well as local Atlantans came to stare at it in wonder.
Meanwhile, Herndon capitalized and acquired over a hundred residential houses, along with a large commercial block of properties.
In the late 19th century blacks began forming church relief societies and benevolent associations providing funds for home mortgages, death benefits, and loans to capitalize on small businesses as African Americans could not get these services elsewhere. In 1905, Herndon was approached by two prominent black church pastors. One of them, Rev. Peter Bryant of Wheat Street Baptist Church, had recently formed the Atlanta Benevolent & Protective Association, and was in dire need of capital. Herndon agreed to buy and reorganize the company. The company was renamed Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association and later it would gain fame as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Herndon was named its first president. Throughout the next year several branch offices were opened in Georgia. An editor of the Atlanta Independent newspaper, wrote, "When people buy a policy in Atlanta Life they are buying Alonzo Herndon." In 1920, the company moved its headquarters to 148 Auburn Avenue.
Herndon headed Atlanta Life for 22 years and expanded operations into six other southern states. The company's only rival among black owned insurance firms was the highly successful North Carolina Mutual in Durham. This was one of several well capitalized efficiently managed institutions in Durham making this city an important center of black enterprise as well as Atlanta.
The 1920s were prosperous years for Atlanta Life, a prosperity that continued under the leadership of Herndon's only child Norris. The company is still in operation now headquartered in a complex of new and original buildings, providing employment for hundreds of blacks for almost a hundred years.
In addition to constructing and developing office buildings in the 1920s, in 1915, Alonzo and Adrienne completed construction of a mansion. Known today as the Herndon Home, it is an Atlanta landmark and is supported by a foundation created by their son. Norris lived here until his death in 1977. Proudly displayed on a wall of a room in the Herndon Home is a painted mural depicting a plantation with his mother and family in tattered clothes, standing before their log cabin on the moment before they set out on their journey with bedrolls, quilts and tin pots.
Visit the Herndon Home Website.
Book: "The Herndons: An Atlanta Family" by Carole Merritt, 2002.
Back To The History of Auburn Ave