Alonzo Herndon survived a childhood marked by enslavement and destitution to become a wealthy, respected and influential businessman. With emancipation, he, his mother, younger brother, & maternal grandparents were free but homeless. He worked odd jobs as a laborer and peddler to help his family eke out a meager living in rural Social Circle, Georgia.
At the age of 20, with the small amount of money he had managed to save for himself – and only one year of formal schooling – Herndon left Social Circle. He landed in Senoia – and later Jonesboro – learning the barbering trade along the way.
By the time he was 25, Herndon was living in Atlanta and working in a Marietta Street barbershop. In less than one year, he was able to purchase half interest in the shop. By the time he was in his 40s, Herndon owned three barbershops in Atlanta, including 66 Peachtree, across from what is now Woodruff Park. The shop was known as the region’s largest and best barbershop. Catering to an exclusively white clientele of business and political leaders, the all-Black barbering staff was, according to the Atlanta Journal, “known from Richmond all the way to Mobile as the best barbers in the South."
As his fortune grew with his reputation, Herndon began to invest around Atlanta. By 1900, his real estate investments had made him the city’s largest Black property owner. A few years later, he turned his attention to another opportunity, one that would insure his legacy. He invested $140 to buy a failing mutual aid association, an organization similar to an insurance agency. It was the first in a line of similar purchases that Herndon would make in the coming years. Herndon’s business savvy and the sales team he hired enabled him build an organization that offered low-cost life insurance to Atlanta’s Black community, a population underserved by contemporary, white-owned insurers.
The organization Alonzo Herndon built came to be known as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. While other independent insurance companies were being sold, Herndon – and his family – were able to maintain full control of Atlanta Life. And, from its Atlanta roots, the company would eventually serve families in many states. It exists to this day, 116 years after its founding.
Over the years, Alonzo Herndon used his good fortune to help others. He was a supporter of the YMCA, the SouthView Cemetery Association, First Congregational Church, and Atlanta University, among others. Beyond Atlanta, he was present at the founding meetings of the National Negro Business League and the Niagara Movement, the forerunner to the NAACP.
When Alonzo Herndon passed away in 1927, at the age of 69, he was the wealthiest Black citizen in Atlanta.