Herman J. Russell, the iconic entrepreneur who built the nation’s largest black-owned construction and real estate firm, as well as much of the Atlanta skyline, died today at the age of 83. He was also a behind-the-scenes financial backer of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., later playing a critical role in the construction (both literally and in terms of economic and civic participation for African Americans) of the “New South” Atlanta during the administration of the city’s first black mayor, Maynard H. Jackson Jr. Russell was the first black member of Atlanta’s Chamber of Commerce and the second black person to lead the organization as its president.
Russell’s company, H.J. Russell & Company, which he founded as a small plastering business, is one of only three companies to rank among the Black Enterprise 100s annual lists of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses in every year since the rankings were first published in 1973. In addition to being recognized with the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award, BE’s highest recognition for entrepreneurship, in 1997, Russell was also named among 40 “Titans: The Most Powerful African Americans in Business–and How They Shaped Our World” in the 40th anniversary issue of the BE magazine in 2010.
As chairman of H. J. Russell & Co., Russell changed the skylines of American cities and international hubs, developed business and political opportunities for African Americans, and broke barriers in the construction industry, in addition to serving as an advocate of and mentor to legions of black business owners nationwide. At the age of 16, he purchased his first property in 1946—a vacant lot where he later built a duplex—for $125. Over the years, he would acquire and develop numerous real estate projects in the Jim Crow South. He authored Building Atlanta: How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire, about his seven decades in the industry. The book tells the story of how Russell overcame racism and a serious speech impediment to become one of Atlanta’s most influential and respected business and civic leaders: “…a friend of Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young, he quietly helped finance the civil rights crusade, putting up bond for protestors and providing the funds that kept King’s dream alive.”