Alonzo Franklin Herndon was born to Francis (Frank) Herndon and Sophenie Herndon on June 26, 1867 in Social Circle, Georgia. Alonzo was the product of a slave and her master, which was a popular southern tradition. Alonzo Herndon left Social Circle and pursued barbering in several Locations before moving to Atlanta. Once in Atlanta Herndon move between several shops before own the infamous Crystal Palace at 66 Peachtree Street. Herndon’s wealth from barbering allowed him to invest in other business ventures such as buying Atlanta Mutual Insurance. Herndon’s story is truly one of rags to riches. Herndon was a poor slave before the civil war and ended his life as Atlanta first Black Millionaire after reconstruction and during Jim Crow.
After the Civil War slaves everywhere in the United States were set free from the institution of slavery. While Frank Herndon kept some former slaves as sharecroppers, he turned Sophenie and their two sons Alonzo and Thomas away from the Herndon plantation and left them to survive on their own. Frank’s decision to rid the plantation of Sophenie and his illegitimate children was supported by his wife Mary. It was during the time of economic hardship that seven year old Alonzo Herndon harvested his entrepreneur spirit and sold various items such as molasses to help his mother. Along with peddling homemade goods, he was taught how to perform farm labor by his maternal grandfather, who he lived with after being kick off his father farm at the Herndon plantation. At the beginning of Alonzo’s teenage years he was rented out to his father Frank Herndon as a sharecropper for a three year apprenticeship.
After several years of toiling as a sharecropper Alonzo fled in the middle of the night with a small amount of money to the town of Jonesboro, Georgia. Once in Jonesboro Alonzo Herndon rented himself out to a barber for five dollars every month. After finishing the apprenticeship Herndon took a huge step and opened his own shop in Jonesboro.
After one to two years in Jonesboro Herndon looked to move somewhere new to expand his barbershop business. Herndon looked to southern cities such as,Chattanooga in hopes of find a city with a large population. After being disappointed by those cities Herndon wanted to try the newest leading city in the South after reconstruction.
Herndon saw Atlanta as the perfect city for opportunity and business growth. With Barbering being a Black trade, the odds were in Herndon’s favor to become successful in a growing city like Atlanta. Mostly all the Barbers in Atlanta’s City Directory had a “c” beside their name for colored, and remained this way well into the mid 1900’s. Barbering was one of the few jobs opened to Blacks, after the civil war. Many former slaves and sharecroppers used barbering as an alternative to agricultural work. Once in Atlanta Alonzo Herndon’s first job as a barber was the shop of William Hutchins, another black barber. Hutchin’s located on Marietta Street in downtown Atlanta. Herndon eventually bought enough shares to become a partner in Hutchins barber shop.
After partnering with Hutchings, Herndon moved between barbershops frequently in the downtown Atlanta area. Herndon worked across the street from his ex-partner at a smaller shop at 18 Marietta Street, under the owner James Steele. Herndon also took a job under prosperous Black owner William R. Betts. Betts made the decision to move him shop into the Markham Hotel in downtown Atlanta. Betts made this move hoping would attract a steady and more prestigious clientele for the shop. After about at year at the Markham Betts turned the shop over to a well-seasoned.
Alonzo Herndon had become one of the best barbers in Atlanta not long after he arrived. He took a little advice from each barber he worked under to develop his own superior Barbering experience for his customers. The Markham was one of Atlanta finest hotel hosting travels with esteemed titles who would have come into contact with the in house barbers. The Markham gave Herndon the experience to run a large barbershop in Atlanta on his own. He cut hair less and dealt with the business aspects more
A few blocks away from Herndon’s shop was The Good Samaritan Building. The Good Samaritan was special because it was owned by Blacks and shops in the building catered towards the Black population of Atlanta. Amongst the spaces rented out in the Good Samaritan was a barbershop where Black Baber’s catered to the members of their own community. Herndon did not service members of the African American community at any of the shops he worked at downtown. Being a barber was a profession where the old rules of White supremacy and Black servitude were the norm. Herndon as a Black barber with a White clientele would promoted the old south’s way of white supremacy.
Alonzo Herndon’s customers were very special to him, and he was a special barber to them. Herndon’s loyal customers followed him from shop to shop in the downtown area. The strength of the barber-client relationship was shown after the Markham hotel Fire. On May 17, 1896 the Markham House burned from a small kitchen fire that started on Decatur Street. On that summer Sunday evening from his home on Ivy Street Herndon watched the smoke cause by the fire that destroyed his shop. Herndon posted an ad in The Atlanta Constitution to his clients. “I will be glad to serve my regular patrons and the public.” Herndon knew his clients needed him and he was not letting the fire stop him from performing his job.
Herndon moved to various locations after the Markham House fire. Herndon switched from barbershop to barbershop trying to find a permanent place. Herndon finally settled on Marietta Street and decided to make this shop full of grand experiences. The shop in the Norcross Building on Marietta Street was full service, but to White men only in true Herndon fashion. Herndon’s crew at the barbershop was just as skilled at the trade as he was. They were also just as committed as offering the same level of customer service. The shop on Marietta Street allowed Herndon a large steady income bringing almost ten thousand dollars home a year from barbering alone. This healthy in from his barbershop allowed him to buy properties on Auburn Avenue Atlanta’s exclusively Black neighborhood. This new dream at Marietta Street would not last for long due to another fire. This fire started at the basement of a furniture store near Herndon’s Shop. Herndon responded to the second fire by renting another shop quickly like he did after the fire at the Markham House. Herndon moved to 66 Peachtree Street, which would change his life.
“Herndon’s Barber Shop” opened December 13, 1902. Like other shops Herndon opened previously the shop on Peachtree Street was full service. A customer could get their hair cut, a shave, their shoes shined, a bath, and even their suits pressed. Herndon was always looking for new ways to better the experience of being survived at the Barber Shop on Peachtree. Herndon designed the shop with European influence, after his honeymoon with second wife Jessie Gillespie (Herndon’s first wife Adrienne died in 1910).
After several stages of renovations the shop looked like no other in downtown Atlanta. The Atlanta Constitution posted articles ads staying there was no other like its kind in the entire world. There was a gentleman at the door to greet every customer that walked in. Several shiny brass mirrors and fixtures were place at every station on the wall. Marble tubs and decorative tiles took up the entire basement. 25 large luxury chairs waited to be filled with the next gentleman in line for a haircut or shave. The chandelier was the long lasting trademark of Herndon’s Barber Shop earning it the moniker Crystal Palace.
Herndon lived in a Black neighborhood on the west side of Atlanta near the Black Universities, and rode in the Black section of the streetcar to work every day. As the wealthiest Black man in Atlanta he still was limited by southern Jim Crow in everyday life. Alonzo Herndon would have not been able to stay at the Markham Hotel because it was Whites only, eat at the restaurant his patrons dined at because of segregation, or even take his son the same park and swimming facilities and his patron’s children. Through his success he could still see the error in the ways Blacks were treated.
Alonzo Herndon made a large profit from social inequality, holding a job that was catered to a White only market so he was not as eager as others to change things socially and politically. Herndon profited largely in the barbering business because of his White clientele. Herndon’s clientele were whites who wanted to feel superior is a post-civil war society, so they went to a black barber. Herndon’s job and many other jobs that called for Black servitude would be lost if equality for all happened rapidly. Herndon depended on the racist ways of the old south for success in his business.
Herndon purchased The Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association, The Royal Mutual Insurance Company, and the National Laborer’s Protective Union to form Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association. These grand purchases not only secured Herndon’s financial status but gave him an even higher status and great reputation among the African American community. During a time when most insurance companies would not insure Blacks, Herndon knew he had a chance to obtain most African American insurance policies the way he has done with barbering in downtown Atlanta. Herndon would have seen Black neighborhoods such as Auburn Avenue full of potential clients waiting to be insured. After many trials and financial struggles the Insurance Company was able to take off in other southern states such as Tennessee, and Arkansas. 
Alonzo Herndon started off as a teenager toiling soil on his Fathers plantation and became a successful barber shop owner, and ended his life as the president of the largest African American owned insurance company of his time. The Jim Crow laws that held African American back socially by keeping White and Black separate in society allowed Alonzo Herndon to excel financially in his barber shop providing a service to White men and helping the Black community afford issuance when white companies rejected them.
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