The Herndon Foundation and the affiliated Atlanta Life Insurance Co., where I serve as executive chairman, have played unique and leading roles in advancing Black Americans and other minorities since the Civil War. Atlanta Life was founded in 1905 by a former slave, Alonzo Herndon, who grew his investments in Atlanta barber shops and real estate to become the city’s wealthiest Black citizen.
At the time, he was barred from service in his own establishments Atlanta Life is the only Black-owned insurance company in the U.S.
Herndon and Atlanta Life’s leadership have always believed that the company and its resources should be directed toward advancing civil and economic rights for disadvantaged Americans. Herndon was a founding member of both the National Business League and the Niagara Movement, the precursor of the NAACP. Atlanta Life was also the only company to insure Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his life. And it played an active role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, providing employment to activists and bailing out protestors from jail.
We’re seeking to build on this legacy in developing the Herndon Directors Institute, and we’re drawing from lessons learned in other parts of the world. Visiting post-apartheid South Africa a few years ago, I was struck by how central integrating the country’s businesses and boardrooms have been to trying to heal the wounds of its tragic past. The ability to give businesspeople from disadvantaged communities access to the C-suite is like creating a Voting Rights Act for corporate board services. Everyone learns and gains from this process.
The Herndon Directors Institute’s first year of operations has been truly heartening. An incredibly diverse class of fellows have joined us, including CEOs from the private sector, U.S. military generals, and leaders from nonprofits and the government. And they’ve been taught and mentored by some of this country’s truly great minds, ranging from the Institute’s dean, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, president-emeritus of Spelman College; Steven Reinemund, former chief executive officer of PepsiCo.; Peter Buffett, co-president and co-chair, Novo Foundation; Byron Loflin, global head of board engagement at NASDAQ, and Francisco D’Souza, founder of Cognizant Technology Solutions. Kenneth Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck and Co. gave the inaugural address to the Institute’s class.
The Herndon Foundation and Atlanta Life have been central players in uplifting minorities and people of color during critical stages of U.S. history. This has included helping Blacks build and sustain businesses during the post-Civil War years and the decades of Jim Crow law in Georgia and the broader South. We now hope to forge a new era of racial equity in the boardrooms of corporate America. We hope business and political leaders in the country will join us in this pursuit.
Roosevelt Giles is executive chairman of the board of Atlanta Life Insurance Group. He also serves as chairman of the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation.