Life lessons learned from a former slave-turned millionaire

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At the turn of the 20th century, Alonzo Herndon started an investment and insurance company to service Black Atlantans. It became one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in the country. Today, The Atlanta Life Insurance Company is still thriving on Auburn Avenue and the lessons of a former slave-turned-millionaire are being shared with aspiring young business leaders in who want to own businesses of their own.

The Herndon Home is located in Northwest Atlanta in the Historic Vine City Community and illustrates the remarkable story of a Walton County man who went from slave, to sharecropper, to barber to Atlanta’s first Black millionaire. When you step inside, you immediately step back in time. Designed by his first wife Adrienne and constructed almost entirely by Black carpenters, the home and each room in it tells the story of Herndon’s journey--from a boy born into slavery in Social Circle to the successful entrepreneur who founded a company that’s still thriving today.

WATCH: Take a tour of the Herndon Home

Julissa Smith takes a lot of pride in sharing the Herndon Family story-- especially with young people who she believes can learn a lot from Herndon’s will and sense of self determination. As the museum curator and the director of the Herndon Home Foundation’s Game Changers Program, she constantly emphasizes Herndon’s principals of social entrepreneurship.

“He was not just about going out and saying ‘How can I make some money and build this beautiful home for my wife?’ It was ‘How can I make a difference? How can I be compelling and help my peers.’ That’s why we give the high school students in our program structured instruction about how to start a business, make a profit and help people around you by investing the money you’re making in the community around you,” Smith told FOX 5’s Portia Bruner.

High school senior Damien Watkins is active in the Game Changers Program. Dually enrolled in Booker T. Washington High School and Clark Atlanta University, Watkins told Bruner he’s learned valuable lessons in the program.

“I feel like it’s a made a real impact on how I see things. Sometimes people think you just start doing something and then you’re all of a sudden a success. But now I know there are steps to what I’ve gotta do to be successful,” Watkins, 17, said. “I realize sometimes you’ll fall and you’ll have to get back up,”

The Game Changers Program trains about 25 teenagers every year. Inaseeah Harris joined the program two years ago at the age of 15.

“I’m getting messages from people who already figured this stuff out later in life and I’m getting their lessons now while it’s still early in my business goals,” Harris, a Kipp Academy Senior said.

For Smith, the growth in her students are measurable and she’s certain it will make all the difference their ability to thrive in business school and in their subsequent careers.

“The way they deal with each other, the way they answer questions. You can see the metamorphosis over the months. It’s a lesson of self-determination and that’s something that doesn’t expire no matter how much time passes. We’re teaching them how to be entrepreneurs starting from the ground up--with business proposals development and all the other skills they need,” Smith said.

And like Alonzo Herndon, who left Social Circle on foot with only a few dollars in his pocket at the age of 20, Herndon’s Game Changer participants are among several scholars with big dreams and even bigger plans to make their businesses make a difference.

“Basically him, with only $11 in his pocket walking to Jonesboro to become a barber and really making something out of nothing, that’s really important to me because I don’t really have much.  But, I know I can make whatever I want with whatever I do have and then use it for good,’ Harris said standing near the 110 year old desk where Herndon used to meet with clients and sell insurance policies.

To learn more about Herndon Home tours and the Foundation’s Game Changers Program for high school students, visit

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