Lifelong Atlantan Herman Russell, a political mover-and-shaker, philanthropist and real estate/construction magnate who helped shape his city’s skyline, died on Saturday at the age of 83. His life is a chronicle about how an American regardless of race can overcome great odds to grow a successful business and accomplish a great career.
The title of his autobiography, published just this year by Chicago Review Press, says it all: “Building Atlanta: How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire.” A tribute statement from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed proclaims that “he is one of the best men the city has ever produced.”
The youngest of eight children, and born during the Depression in the Summerhill community, he started work with a shoe shine business and selling Coca-Cola. At age 16 he bought his first piece of property, and the sky was the limit from there. After his early education at Tuskegee Institute, he formed a plastering company that developed over time into a giant construction and development firm— the H.J. Russell & Co. Currently the firm is a partner in the construction of the new $1 billion downtown Atlanta Falcons stadium. The Coca Cola headquarters, the Georgia Pacific building are counted as among the many “monuments” built by Russell’s construction company over the years.
Many may not realize that he was also the nation’s first African-American owner of a major sports team (he was a part owner of the NBA Hawks and the former Atlanta Flames NHL team, which later moved the Calgary).
During the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, a tireless Russell could often be found behind the scenes working to build relationships and trust between Atlanta’s white and black communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King sought him out as a friend, as did governors and two presidents. Russell was particularly proud of becoming the first black member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the second black to be elected as its president.
His first wife Otelia died in 2006 and he remarried the former Sylvia Anderson, who served for many years as president of AT&T Georgia. The InsiderAdvantage team extends condolences to his wife and children who remain actively involved in the family businesses.