Alonzo Herndon

Spring 2021

“alonzo herndon”

gill gingher

The legacy of Alonzo Herndon (b. 1858) represents an important piece of black history in Atlanta. Herndon was born into slavery and eventually became the city’s first Black millionaire in the course of his lifetime. Although he is widely known for his ownership of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, Herndon also invested in real estate on the westside, where he eventually built his opulent mansion–now museum. The aforementioned building has been well preserved and remains a significant attraction for visitors to the historic westside neighborhoods adjacent to Atlanta University Center, however, the company’s main historic building is still waiting to undergo restorations. Located within the Sweet Auburn Historic District just East of Downtown Atlanta, which was designated in 1976, the building has been subject to lack of investment, crime, and disrepair like many other historic inner-city neighborhoods. In fact, the neighborhood was recognized as one of the most endangered historic places in the United states in 1992 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The need for protecting and preserving such a site is paramount, as the neighborhood was also the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the oldest in the city of Atlanta. Outside of the physical spaces of Herndon’s entrepreneurship, his legacy represents one of black social mobility and strength in the face of adversity. Herndon’s significant investments in property allowed him to improve a great deal of housing stock in the city that provided many Black Atlantans with affordable and quality housing. Even after his death, the Herndon Homes development was completed in 1946 under his namesake. Located in the English Avenue neighborhood on the Westside, the development provided a significant amount of affordable housing to low income families. The development itself fell into disrepair as well, much like many public housing communities in the 20th century, and was eventually demolished in 2006. However, there are new plans underway to redevelop the site into a mixed-use, affordable living community. The series of shops, restaurants, and homes will be rebranded as “Herndon Square” and is part of a new HUD initiative to privatize some of the upkeep and redevelopment of existing public housing sites that badly need it. While it is important that public tenants are able to live in properties that are well managed, it is also imperative that these programs protect the rights of said tenants and insure that these communities remain accessible to those who need them the most. While preserving the physical spaces of historic sites is quite the noble cause–understanding the implications of history, policy, and economy with respect to their current conditions is even more important. Saving these spaces should not only preserve the history unique to them, but recognize the conditions that created their need for repair in the first place, and ultimately provide solutions to these issues in order to generate healthier and happier environments in these neighborhoods. After all, Herndon’s legacy is not one of picking oneself up by the bootstraps, but rather the satisfaction of endless ambition, which lies in equity and opportunity. 

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