Atlanta’s First Black Millionaire Started Out as a Barber

Alonzo Herndon

Alonzo Herndon is best known as the first African-American entrepreneur from Atlanta to become a millionaire. He was born in 1858 into slavery to a Black mother and white father who was likely his mother's slavemaster. He went on to be a sharecropper, and in 1878, he trained to become a barber. This eventually created an opportunity for him to own and operate three large barber shops in the Atlanta area that served prominent white men.
But his path to becoming a millionaire began in 1900, when he became a founding member of Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League.

In 1905, one of his main barber shops was destroyed in the Atlanta race riots, so Herndon started investing in real estate and eventually purchased a failing mutual aid association that he turned into the Atlanta Family Life Insurance Company. That company was so successful that it expanded into several other markets including Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and many other states.

His employees 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.

Sadly, Herndon died in 1927 but his son, Norris, took over the company. In modern day, the company is still in business and is the only the only African-American owned and privately held stock company in the country with capabilities that include personal and business insurance, reinsurance of group life insurance, and dental benefits.

To date, his mansion, built by black artisans in 1910, sits next to Morris Brown College and is listed on the national register of historic homes on Diamond Hill.