Herman J. Russell wrote a book titled Building Atlanta. “How I broke Through Segregation to Launch A Business Empire.” Bob Andelman was the co-author and Andrew Young wrote the foreword.
The words, “Go home and shine shoes on your own porch” rang in his ears from the Atlanta City Hall Alderman and all the white people around him, who laughed at him , but it only strengthen his resolve. Herman had a speech impediment but was struck with the entrepreneurial spirit at a young age in the segregated South. He didn’t mind shining shoes but he wanted a business, not a box.
He had told his daddy, a ‘master plaster’, about his plan to open a shoe shine stand, but the land (a vacant lot near their home) belonged to the city. At twelve years old he had to be pretty bold to enter the city hall alone. He came out a changed person. Funny how one incident can become a turning point – Herman the businessman and entrepreneur was born that day, because he was going to build his stand anyway.
He built his shoe shine stand, then took the time to listen and observe what his customers really wanted. He noticed that some of his customers needed laces, so he sold laces. Then he noticed they wanted a snack while they were waiting for their shine. He added snacks and a coke and his business continued to grow. After being in business a month he had to hire help. Another added benefit of having a business is it became a place of learning as customers came in with their gossip, conversations and tall tales. He may not have understood it all but he was listening.
Despise not the small beginnings. At ten cents a shine Herman made eight to ten dollars a day. Not bad when you consider that the average daily wage for a adult male worker in those days was about six dollars and fifty cents a day.
Herman was the last of eight children and his mom had attended Benedict College but most of the jobs were for domestic workers. His dad was a master plasterer and worked on many of the finest homes in the Atlanta area. He didn’t talk a lot but he led by example. He taught his kids to live a life with kindness, bravery, independence, honesty and respect for others. “Do your best no matter what you do.” He saved his money and didn’t believe in wasting time or money.
Herman had chores and a paper route when he was young. By the time he was eleven he worked (manual labor) on some of the construction jobs during summer vacations and when he was fourteen his dad bought him his own plastering tools. His dad demonstrated what to do and Herman had to pay attention and learn the trade.
While Herman was still in high school he and some friends built a duplex on a lot that he paid $125 for. The duplex cost about $3,000 to build. Herman learned a valuable lesson when he discovered that he had built his duplex on the wrong lot. But he reached an agreement with the owner by trading the empty lot that was next to his. From that point on Herman became a stickler for detail for every project or deal he entered into.
When Herman told his parents he wanted to go to college to increase his knowledge of the building trades they asked how was he going to pay for it? His answer, “I saved enough from my business to pay for school”. Later as he walked out the door on his way to the train station his father told him, “Work hard and stay focused”. The train ride from Atlanta to Tuskegee was a lesson in separate but unequal transportation.
In 1949 Tuskegee Institute was a lot of open space and a few buildings. However, Herman transition to college life was eased by meeting up with some of his old friends that had graduated from high school before him. They had some fun, but he never lost his focus. He excelled in drafting, masonry, carpentry and every construction related course.
H.J. Russell & Company became Atlanta’s Do-It- All Contractor. Soon after graduation him dad became so sick that Herman took over the plastering business, and named the company H.J. Russell & Company. As a sub-contractor Herman offered great service, at a good prices and on time delivery.
H.J. Russel built a twenty-four- unit luxury apartment building in which one of the first tenants was Vernon Jordan, who was just a lawyer at the time. Next came a one-hundred-unit luxury apartment complex called Paradise Apartments. Paradise Management (a real estate holding company) grew as the company kept building properties. By 1962 the company added a “couple of four-hundred- unit complexes.
In 1967 H.J. Russell & Co. was the plastering and fireproofing sub-contractor for the Equitable Insurance Co. Building, one of the first large buildings in downtown Atlanta at the time. It was the largest subcontracting opportunity to date for any African American firm at that time.
When asked how did he acquire almost two thousand rental units, a property management company, and an insurance before the age of forty, he said he didn’t spend money on showy expensive offices, he didn’t do a lot of unnecessary travel, and he didn’t buy a lot of expensive cloths and jewelry, and he didn’t drive expensive luxury cars. He held on his earnings and reinvested into his company.
When he built the family home it was on what others called a ‘sad corner lot’. But he was a man of vision. His new home was ten thousand square feet on a two and a half acres of land; it had five bedrooms, six bathrooms, and indoor swimming pool, a tennis court and a basketball court. When Vernon Jordan left Atlanta to take over the United Negro College Fund in Washington D.C. Herman gave him a big going away part for him in that house.
Herman mostly stayed in the background during the civil rights movement, but he provided financial support. He and others provided provided the bail money for the hundreds and sometimes thousand of civil rights demonstrators. ( Remember the scene in the HBO movie Boycott where some one came in and paid the bail for all the protesters – that was based on Herman Russell). When Martin Luther King Jr. and the leadership of the NAACP came to town they would relax and swim in his indoor pool.
Herman was doing so well in the business community, that he invited into doors that were closed to Blacks at the highest level. He was invited to join the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. And he was the President of the Chamber for a time. He was also invited into the Capital City Club. Joining that club resulted in a joint venture that did $500 million with Coca-Cola. Joint ventures built the Georgia Pacific building , the Georgia Dome and the Coca-Cola Headquarters in Atlanta.
Georgia Pacific Building
Coca-Cola Headquarters in Atlanta
The Georgia Doom was replaced by The Mercedes-Benz Stadium and H.J. Russell & Company had a hand in both.
Along the way to building an Empire of glass, concrete and steel, he built some connections with many history makers; Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Ambassador Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan, Johnny Cochran, and some political folks; a couple of Georgia Governors to include one who became President Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama. (Most of the people mentioned have photos in the book).
I highly recommend this book. Herman J. Russell was a self-made man who grew up in a blue-collar family in the segregated South who according to Forbes Magazine became one of the richest African American in the United States. The buildings still stand and now the grown children run the company. Herman had done so much for so many and touched so many lives, that this would make a great movie. Forrest Gump was fictional, but Herman Russel was the real Southern Deal.