By Chetter Galloway

Story Summary:

Alonzo F. Herndon owned a barbershop that catered to whites only. Because of the Jim Crow laws, the black people who worked at the barbershop and even Alonzo himself had to enter by the rear door. How did the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots affect Alonzo?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Atlantas First Black Millionaire

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What are some of the differences and similarities in race relations between the Jim Crow era and today?
  2.  What is the biggest challenge in dispelling stereotypes about other races?
  3.  Why is racial identity such a complicated and discussed subject?
  4.  What challenges and barriers existed in the Jim Crow era for people of color to excel in business and education?
  5.  Aside from Alonzo Franklin Herndon, who are some other people of color from this era who made significant contributions to society?
  6.  Why was the rising social class of blacks in the South a problem for the status quo?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African Americans/Africans
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name’s Chetter Galloway and today I’ll be sharing the story of Atlanta’s first black millionaire. Alonzo Franklin Herndon who was born as a slave in 1858 to a white farmer Frank Herndon and one of his slaves, Seraphine.  Now Herndon earned his millions in three business ventures insurance, real estate and what he’s most known for, being a barber.

Now Herndon being of mixed ancestry knew he could earn a lot of money if he was able to cut the hair of both blacks and whites. One of his most notable accomplishments was his barbershop that he opened in 1902 which was called the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was a symbol of excellence and opulence in the city. It had 23 barbers, 25 chairs, 20 baths, crystal chandeliers, marble floors, mahogany doors, offering shaves, shines and laundry, bath. A haircut cost a quarter and a dime would get you a shave or a shine. Simply the largest barbershop, some said, from the nation’s capital to the southernmost tip of Florida. The finest barbershop in the world arguably.

But in all its grandeur, there was one thing missing; no black customers. You see even though Mr. Herndon owned the shop and it was built with this blood sweat and tears and his name was outside on the sign, because it was on Peachtree Street the clientele was white only, as Peachtree Street was restricted for business for whites.

It didn’t matter that Mr. Herndon had the finest barbers in the world who were at the very top of their profession. Mr. Herndon and his staff couldn’t even get a haircut in the facility where they work. For you see the only thing that mattered was the color of their skin. And to add insult to injury he and his staff had to enter in the rear of the shop. Yet and still despite this indignation and being subject at times to unmentionable names, these men were still entrusted with razors and blades and scissors to cut around the very delicate neck and throat area of the men who oppressed them.

Now people may say the shop is representative of two different things. On the one hand, it’s a symbol of success and how hard work will provide these benefits to you if you continue along your path of your career. On the other hand, it could be a representation of the Jim Crow status quos separate but equal or unequal. White goes first or in the case of Mr. Herndon and his staff, colored entry in the rear.

The shop was also at the center of a major tragedy that took place in Atlanta in 1906 known as the Atlanta race riots. You see for years tensions had been building in the city between the races under that Jim Crow system. …The fact that people like Mr. Herndon were able to rise above that and become successful caused a lot of resentment in the white community; specifically some barbers who wanted to achieve the success that Mr. Herndon had as he, as he grew in his business and their suffered greatly.

But the race riot itself was the result of an all too familiar rumor that takes place or one that’s similar that we’ve heard before where a black man or a group of black men is accused of looking at, winking, brushing up against that ever so frail Southern Belle and it wouldn’t matter if the, if the rumor was true or not. Just the accusation itself was enough to get men castrated, hogtied, mutilated, burned alive or the most common practice of the day, simply swinging from a tree.

Well this rumor that started, and was not verified, was that a group of four men had assaulted a woman and a mob quickly formed downtown and headed toward Decatur Street where many black businesses operated including black barbershops. The men would go into the shops and actually take the barbers who were cutting hair on their customers and take them out into the streets and assault them and beat them savagely.

When the mob reached Mr. Herndon’s shop, he had already closed up early. Many think he may have heard word earlier that there was trouble brewing downtown and closed the shop early, so he could get away. Unfortunately, one of his workers wasn’t so fortunate when it came to the mob. You see a shoeshiner by the name of Fred Walton, as one onlooker described, tried to outrun the mob but fell victim to a vicious series of kicks and clubs and fists before he lay motionless on the ground in a pool of his own blood.

The mob didn’t stop there. As trollies that was, that were, coming from the outlying areas and had blacks on them they were pulled from the trolleys and taken into the streets and assaulted savagely. This lasted into the wee hours of the evening and only stopped at the response by the National Guard which had to be called in. But even with the National Guard there were some blacks in the outlying areas who went and took to arms themselves fearing that the National Guard wouldn’t be there to protect them either.

The news of this of course was reached in the region, around the country and as far away as France. After the riots were over Herndon and other prominent citizens both black and white got together with the city council to see what could be done to bring the city back to a place of togetherness prior to this civil unrest that took place.

Now Herndon himself went back to work in his shop the following Monday as he’d had setbacks before such as two fires and one that was financial as well. Now though it didn’t cost him a lot of money in terms of damage to his shop, it did cost him a heavy price personally. You see his wife Adrienne left him for several months taking their child, Norris with them because she feared for their safety. Eventually she would return but died shortly after coming back to Atlanta. Herndon would go on to remarry again and continue in his business ventures before he died himself in 1927 at the age of 69.

His legacy continues today and he can be best remembered as a man who persevered through a lot of struggles in a turbulent time in our history to become the first black millionaire of Atlanta. His story is not just relevant to Atlanta history but also that of our nation.

 

Atlanta’s First Black Millionaire and His Crystal Palace