Over one hundred years ago a former slave, Alonzo Franklin Herndon, founded what would become the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. A sharecropper from Social Circle, GA., he parlayed his haircutting skills into the finest men’s barbershop in Atlanta, catering to the white businessmen who populated Peachtree Street until his shop was damaged during the 1905 Atlanta race riots. An indomitable entrepreneur, Herndon was a real estate investor, a world traveler, an amateur architect, a pillar of black Atlanta, and its wealthiest black man. His mansion, built by black artisans in 1910, today abuts the Morris Brown College campus and is listed on the national register of historic homes on Diamond Hill.
The company that Herndon founded with a $140 investment was the outgrowth of one of the many benevolent societies catering to low and moderate-income consumers. Salesmen 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.
Over time, the company continued to serve this customer base, occasionally buying similar companies when they fell on hard times. In order to assure its continued independence at a time when similar companies were duped into being sold, the company kept its ownership concentrated in the Herndon family and its affiliate, the Herndon Foundation.
Continuing to serve its traditional customer base, Atlanta Life became a household name to black families throughout 17 states. Its salespeople collected premiums weekly and the company became woven into the fabric of the communities it served through its strong civic involvement and through its pivotal role in the underpinnings of the civil rights movement. For instance, it was quietly responsible for providing bail for countless students arrested during the sit-in movement. With more educated consumers, the insurance industry as a whole now has to rise to the potential customers’ expectations. Therefore, Atlanta Life has taken on a new vision and mission to build on its century of service.