Herman J. Russell, the founder and former chief executive officer of H. J. Russell and Company, was a nationally recognized entrepreneur and philanthropist, as well as a highly influential leader in Atlanta. Over the course of fifty years, Russell amassed one of the nation’s most profitable minority-owned business empires, turning a small plastering company into a construction and real estate conglomerate. When Russell stepped down in 2004 as head of the company, he left the leadership mantle to his two sons and daughter, although he continued to serve as the company’s chairman of the board.
Herman Jerome Russell was born to Maggie Googson and Rogers Russell in Atlanta on December 23, 1930. Russell, the youngest of eight children, grew up in the Summerhill neighborhood, near Turner Field (later Center Parc Stadium). Before attending David T. Howard High School, Russell worked odd jobs for his father, a plasterer who instilled in Russell an ethic of hard work and prudence. After graduating from high school, Russell worked and, later, earned a degree in building construction from the Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
In 1953 Russell returned to Atlanta to begin his career. Three years later he married Otelia Hackney, a native of Union Point in Taliaferro County, who had graduated from Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) and taught at the Georgia Avenue School (later the Peter James Bryant Elementary School). The couple eventually had three children: Donata, H. Jerome, and Michael.
In 2015 Joycelyn Darby Alston, a resident of New York, claimed that she, too, was among Russell’s progeny, a product of a brief relationship between Russell and her mother, an Atlanta native. When DNA tests confirmed her claim, the Russell family offered Alston a modest financial settlement in exchange for her silence. She declined the offer and legal proceedings ensued, but the Russell family has so far refused to acknowledge Alston among Herman Russell’s legitimate heirs.
While a sophomore in high school, Russell purchased his first property, which he later developed and leveraged to pay his college tuition. After graduating from Tuskegee, Russell performed small-scale plastering and repair services until he inherited his father’s business, then known as the Rogers Russell Plastering Company, upon his father’s death in 1957. He then took on larger projects that ranged from home building to real estate investment. By the decade’s end, Russell’s business portfolio had expanded to include general contracting services through H. J. Russell Construction Company.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Russell’s construction empire grew and diversified, paralleling the changing racial status quo of African Americans. Russell’s track record of successful joint partnerships on large-scale projects with white-owned construction companies bolstered his business reputation across public and private sectors. During this period Russell owned several construction and real estate companies, among them H. J. Russell and Company, H. J. Russell Construction Company, H. J. Russell Plastering Company, Paradise Management Inc., DDR International, and Southeast Land Development Company.
Russell also branched out from construction and property management businesses by adding communications, concessions, and sports franchises to his portfolio. At the same time, his construction partnerships expanded to include residential, educational, commercial, and recreational structures. Some of Russell’s better-known projects include numerous Atlanta landmarks, among them the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena (later State Farm Arena), and Turner Field.
In 1994 Russell’s construction businesses were reorganized under H. J. Russell and Company. During this time, the company reported annual sales estimated at $150 million, with project offices in several cities from Miami, Florida, to New York City. By the early twenty-first century, the Atlanta-based H. J. Russell and Company was a nationally recognized leader in the construction and real estate development industry, as well as the single largest Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) real estate firm in the United States.
Business, Civic, and Community Leadership
Throughout his prosperous and lengthy career, Russell demonstrated exemplary business, civic, and community leadership. In the early 1960s, he became the first Black member, and later the second Black president, of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Russell, along with such contemporaries as Jesse Hill, Vernon Jordan, and Andrew Young, was part of the new guard of Black leaders who emerged in Atlanta amid struggles over racial equality. He counted Martin Luther King Jr. as a friend, and in 1973 he helped Maynard Jackson win election as Atlanta’s first Black mayor. Russell exerted much of his influence behind the scenes, providing counsel and funding where needed during the civil rights movement.
Russell has served on the boards of numerous business, civic, and community organizations, among them the Citizens Trust Bank, Central Atlanta Progress, the Butler Street YMCA, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and the Business Council of Georgia. His dedication to entrepreneurship and education is exemplified through his philanthropy. In 1999 Russell pledged $4 million to expand educational programs in entrepreneurship at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University (GSU), and Morehouse College, all in Atlanta, as well as at Tuskegee University.
Otelia Russell passed away in 2006, and three years later Russell’s family donated $1 million to expand a new facility of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding. The Otelia and Herman Russell Lobby in the new building honors this gift. Russell later married Sylvia Anderson, the president of AT&T.
The Herman J. Russell Sr. International Center for Entrepreneurship at GSU’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business is named in Russell’s honor. Several organizations, among them the Black Business Association of Los Angeles (California) and Junior Achievement of Atlanta, have also recognized Russell’s business and civic contributions. In 1991 he received the Horatio Alger Award, an honor recognizing dedicated community leaders who demonstrate individual initiative and a commitment to excellence.
In 2013 Russell was inducted as a Georgia Trustee, an honor conferred by the Georgia Historical Society and the Office of the Governor. The following year he published his autobiography Building Atlanta: How I Broke through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire.
Russell died in Atlanta on November 15, 2014, at the age of eighty-three.