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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 506

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This is the grave of Alonzo Herndon.

Herndon was born into slavery in 1858, in Walton County, Georgia. His mother’s master had raped her and Alonzo was the result. Like basically every other slave, Herndon, his mother, his brother, and his grandparents lived in abject poverty in the immediate aftermath of slavery. The end of slavery is indeed the Jubilee, but the end of slavery was also a period of actual starvation, death from exposure or disease, and extreme deprivation. So Herndon went to work as a small child, as a laborer and peddler. His family eventually became sharecroppers on a plantation about forty miles northeast of Atlanta.

There was no reason that Herndon should have been any different than millions of other ex-slaves, living and dying in obscurity. He left the farm in 1878, having received all of one year of schooling. He moved to Senoia, west of Atlanta, then to Jonesboro, where he opened a barbershop. This was a period when black businesses were opening to serve the free black community. Most people would be poor, but there were economic opportunities in serving black people in a Jim Crow South. So it became that the small but growing black middle class often came out of the barbershops and funeral parlors and churches. Moreover, whites would sometimes cross the color line to have their hair cut by black men.

No one personified the possibilities in the post-slavery world more than Herndon. His barbershop did well. He moved to Atlanta in 1883 to work in someone else’s shop. Six months later he entered into a partnership to co-own it. He then started opening a bunch of barbershops, including a luxurious one that served the city’s white elite. This was a legacy of slavery itself, providing whites with the finest comforts in a service industry. Just this time, the whites had to pay for it. And pay they did. Herndon hired only the best barbers and they had such a reputation that when whites from around the South would end up in Atlanta, they’d pay him a visit for a haircut. Of course, it goes it goes without saying that black customers were not served there.

Now having serious capital, Herndon started buying real estate in the black community. He bought over 100 rental properties, as well as commercial properties on Auburn Avenue, the major black commercial district in Atlanta. Was Herndon a slumlord? Almost certainly, yes. Heck, even W.E.B. DuBois was a slumlord with his properties, as discussed here. Herndon also opened insurance agencies to serve his people. This latter grew and grew. By the time it was reorganized as the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1922, it was of only 5 black owned insurance companies to have legal reserve status. The company expanded its business to several southern states as well. All of this made Herndon the first black millionaire in Atlanta history and one of the first in the country. He even bought an agricultural plantation in Florida; though I don’t know much about the labor conditions there, I doubt they were good. But for all of that, Herndon also became a national symbol of black pride, an ideal of what the black man could become in the years of slavery. Of course, someone such as Herndon was rare, but was nonetheless a sign for millions that as bad as things might be where they lived, they were still better than slavery.

Herndon also involved himself in the larger struggle for black rights. He was one on the attendees of the Niagara Conference in 1905, where the NAACP was founded. He worked with Booker T. Washington and attended the founding convention of the National Negro Business League in 1900, convened by the Tuskegee founder. Moreover, Herndon also knew the effects of racism. His barber shop was attacked and ruined during the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. He had already gone home for the day, but the owners of a black barbershop across the street were killed by the mob, which would have been Herndon’s fate if he wasn’t so lucky.

Herndon died in 1927, at the age of 69.

Alonzo Herndon is buried in South View Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia, which is one of the civic projects he was involved with in the black community of the city.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. I am extremely grateful and hope you will consider to support this series’ existence. If you would like this series to visit other African-American leaders of the early twenteth century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Abbott, who founded the Chicago Defender, which sadly closed its doors this week, is in Blue Island, Illinois and Mary McLeod Bethune is in Daytona Beach, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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