This insurance company was founded by a former slave but continues to thrive 120 years later

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 23, 2024 8:06 AM EDT
The Atlanta Life Insurance Company building was completed in 1920. Photo Credit:: Wikimedia Commons

Last January, Atlanta Life Insurance was acquired by basketball legend Magic Johnson’s Atlanta Life Holdings. Johnson, when the deal was announced, promised to deliver services that reimagined the future, He was also keen to press home the fact that he knew and was loyal to the magnificent history of Atlanta Life.

The Atlanta Life Insurance Company was founded in 1922 out of the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association by Atlanta’s first Black millionaire Alfonzo Herndon. He was a former slave who first grew his wealth with barber shops that served prominent white Georgians in the late 1890s.

Herndon was was born into slavery on June 26, 1858, on a farm in Georgia but his family was left homeless and destitute following emancipation in 1865. Young Herndon would later take on a job as a laborer but also peddled peanuts, homemade molasses, and axle grease to earn money to supplement the income from sharecropping.

At 20, Herndon left home with only one year of formal schooling and $11 in savings. He settled in Senoia, Georgia and began working as a farmhand. Herndon learned how to barber and later opened up his first barbershop. The business thrived, expanding to three shops in Atlanta by 1904. The barbershops had an elite clientele including presidents, judges, and lawyers whose acquittance and goodwill Herndon earned.

Herndon first invested his earnings from his barbershops in real estate. By 1910, he had acquired more than 100 houses, a large block of commercial property on Auburn Avenue, and a large estate in Tavares, Florida. Despite the considerable wealth he possessed as a Black man in his day, Herndon and his family were not spared the excesses of the racial politics of the time.

For instance, during the Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906, his shops were attacked. Some of his employees even lost their lives.

While real estate occupied the priority list on Herndon’s business portfolio, he acquired The Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association in 1905 for $140. This was a small self-help association that catered to Black people who lived in subsistence. Around the same time, he had set up the Royal Mutual Insurance Company and the National Laborer’s Protective Union.

He consolidated all three of his insurance-focused holdings and named it the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, depositing $5000 with the state to create a guarantee fund.

The company expanded to other southern states under Herndon’s leadership. He purchased struggling companies and Atlanta Mutual soon became one the largest African American owned businesses in the United States.

The rebranding to the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1922 coincided with becoming one of the first Black owned businesses that achieve legal reserve status. The company built and developed its building at 148 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta which is now part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in 1920.

Herndon died in Atlanta on July 21, 1927 leaving behind his empire to his Norris B. Herndon. He expanded his father’s insurance business from $1 million to $54 million in assets. He funded civil rights campaigns such as the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, Atlanta University, and the National Urban League. Norris B. Herndon established the Herndon Foundation in 1947. He also transformed the Herndon Home into a museum which was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2000.

Nowadays, Atlanta Life Insurance Company is not only a strong benefits provider to employers and employees but also a credible risk-transfer and risk-sharing partner. It is committed to raising solutions intended to achieve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) goals.

The core business of Atlanta Life Insurance Company remains being a reinsurer of group benefits programs for corporate, government, and affinity group clients.

Today, as a Black-founded and owned insurance company in the United States, Atlanta Life Insurance is one of the biggest success stories of Black ingenuity and industry. The firm was was acquired by Atlanta Life Holdings, an insurance holding company owned by a group of Black entrepreneurs, in 2023. It partnered with EquiTrust Life Insurance Company, a Magic Johnson Enterprises company to expand its $350 million to $16 billion. Herndon Foundation remains a minority equity owner in Atlanta Life. The nonprofit is supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs and has since given $5 million to philanthropic causes.