Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000, the Herndon Home, built between 1908 and 1910, was the residence of the Herndon family, one of the most prominent African American families in the City of Atlanta. Alonzo Herndon rose from slavery to business success becoming one of the first African American millionaires in the South. The home is fashioned in the grand style of the day, Beaux Arts Classical and is located on Diamond Hill, with a rooftop terrace that has a spectacular view of downtown Atlanta. The home was designed by Adrienne McNeil Herndon, Alonzo Herndon’s first wife. After their son, Norris Herndon’s, death the family fortune went to the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation, Inc. The organization continues to maintain, care for, and operate the home, and continues the social, cultural, and community commitments of the Herndon family.
Accomplishments of Key Figures
Alonzo Franklin Herndon (June 26, 1858 – July 21, 1927)
- After the Civil War, he only acquired one year of formal education, but he was able to apprentice as a barber to support his family, allowing them to leave Social Circle, starting his journey to entrepreneurship and financial success:
- That same year he also opened his first barber shop in 1878 in Jonesboro, Georgia.
- By 1904, Alonzo owned three shops across Atlanta, including his signature white customers only shop at 66 Peachtree Street and another store on Marietta Street.
- In 1905, he purchased a mutual aid association and built it into the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
- He was also quite successful in real estate development, acquiring numerous properties that added to his growing wealth.
- His two marriages, to Adrienne and to Jessie, helped him to broaden his vision and experiences and develop a robust sense of what he hoped for the future for own his family as well as other families in the African American community.
- Alonzo died a nobel millionaire on July 21, 1927 having dedicated liberal amounts of his time and resources in support of economic development, education, and social justice for African Americans .
Adrienne McNeil Herndon (July 22, 1869 – April 6, 1910)
- Born July 22, 1869, in Augusta, Georgia
- Adrienne grew up in Savannah, Georgia, with a passionate desire for theatrical performance.
- She began teaching in Atlanta’s public schools beginning in 1890, during which time she met Alonzo. They were married on Halloween in 1893.
- In 1895, she was appointed, as one of the first African American faculty members at Atlanta university, where she was the first director of dramatics and teacher of elocution.
- She completed programs from the Boston School of Expression and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and she managed a successful stage debut in Boston. However, amid the oppression of the race and gender realities of the times, she found only occasional opportunities for recitals but no path to the legitimate American stage.
- As a faculty member at Atlanta University, Adrienne brought drama and theatrical production to the African American community,. She also hosted theatrical performances from New York and engaged those around her in the arts, including colleagues such as William E. B. DuBois . The Herndons were also very actively involved in DuBois’s socio-political activities.
- Died on April 6, 1910, of Addison’s disease.
Norris Bumstead Herndon (July 15, 1897 – June 15, 1977)
- Born in Atlanta on July 15, 1897.
- Had a privileged childhood, traveling internationally with his family.
- He was present at the formation of the Niagara Movement in 1905 in Fort Erie, Ontario.
- Graduated from Atlanta University in 1919 and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1921.
- Loved the arts and the stage, but took over the leadership of his father’s company in 1928 after his death the previous year. He subsequently guided the business through the Great Depression, eventually leading the company to unprecedented growth.
- Established the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation and continued to use wealth for philanthropy, including providing critical support to leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement.
- Died quietly in his bed at home on June 15, 1977.
Jessie Gillespie Herndon (September 6, 1871 – February 1, 1947)
- Born on September 6, 1871, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
- Attended public school in Milwaukee, ultimately moved to Chicago with her family and worked as a beautician and manicurist in Mary Gillespie’s (her half sister) salon.
- Met Alonzo through mutual friends in the summer of 1911 and married him on May 30, 1912.
- Became actively involved in community affairs in Atlanta, with the family support of various community organizations like Phyllis Wheatley YWCA and the Herndon Day Nursery.
- Appointed to the board of directors of the Atlanta Life Company by Alonzo, becoming the first woman to do so. Eventually became the first female vice president.
- Added her touches to the Herndon Home, continuing its role as an iconic space in the African American community.
- Died of a stroke in her home on February 1, 1947, leaving behind no children.
The legacies of the Herndon family are manifold, including the following highlights:
- The Herndon Home Museum is a National Historic Landmark, embodying the remarkable rise to affluence of Alonzo, the spirit and artistic vision of Adrienne, and the love, taste, and care of Jessie and Norris.
- The Atlanta Life Insurance Company, founded in 1905, is the city’s oldest major black-owned financial institution.
- The Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Family Foundation, which inherited the Herndon fortune and assets, supports the Herndon Home Museum and carries forward the longstanding and quite distinctive philanthropic tradition of the Herndon family.
- The National Historic Sweet Auburn District was the site where Alonzo and Norris invested deeply in the economic development and stability of Atlanta’s African American community.
- The family’s most distinctive investment was also on Sweet Auburn, the Herndon Building (destroyed by a tornado that hit downtown Atlanta in 2008). Built in 1924, the Herndon Building has housed medical and dental offices, the Atlanta School of Social Work, the thirty-four room Savoy Hotel, B.B. Beamon’s Restaurant, the Atlanta Urban League, a furniture store and other retail shops, and much more.
“Auburn Avenue Ghosts.” History Sidebar. Posted 18 July 2014. Internet.
Bayor, Ronald H. Race & the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996.
Hamilton, Frances. Sweet Auburn Avenue: The Buildings Tell Their Story. 5 November 2016. Internet.
“Herndon & Atlanta Life Building.” Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs. 5 November 2016. Internet.
The Herndon Home Museum. 5 November 2016. Internet.
Merritt, Carole. The Herndons: An Atlanta Family. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
- Page Author: Jacqueline J. Royster, Dean, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology
- Building Memories Project Team
- The Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation