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Atlanta Loses Business Giant, Civic Leader and Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement: Herman Jerome Russell

Atlanta and America suffered a major loss on Saturday, November 15, 2014 as Herman Jerome Russell died. Russell, affectionately known as H. J. to family and friends, was a renowned business entrepreneur, civic leader and philanthropist. His is a success story definitely worth noting not only in the annals of Black History but also in American History.

H. J. Russell & Co. is ranked as one of the largest minority-owned companies in the United States. He worked with with major Fortune 500 companies such as Georgia Pacific, Delta Airlines and The Coca-Cola Company as well as Turner Field and the Georgia World Congress Center. In addition, he helped to develop Atlanta’s landscape as a partner in building the Atlanta City Hall Complex, the Georgia Dome, the Carter Presidential Center and Phillips Sports Arena. His namesake company also currently manages over 10,000 apartment units and condominiums. His real estate development interests span cities across the United States and focuses on the revitalization of local municipalities into strong mixed-income communities. H. J. Russell & Company is a diversified organization that has expanded into the areas of construction, construction management, real estate development and property management. Concessions International, LLC is a division of the H. J. Russell conglomerate consisting of food and beverage businesses in seven major airports and a partnership in the Paschal’s restaurant on Northside Drive in Atlanta, Georgia, which is a cornerstone in his Castleberry Hill development project, which has helped to revitalize the southwest portion of downtown Atlanta.

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 district, near Turner Field. Before attending David T. Howard High School, Russell worked for his father who was a plasterer. After graduating from high school, Russell earned a degree in building construction from the Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University) in Alabama in 1953. Afterwards, he returned to Atlanta to begin his career. Three years later, Russell married Otelia Hackney, a native of Union Point in Greene County, who had graduated from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) and taught at the Georgia Avenue School (later the Peter James Bryant Elementary School). This union of over 40 years gave life to three children: Donata, H. Jerome, and Michael, all of which who are executives in H. J. Russell and Co. 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. Otelia H. Russell died in 2006. Soon after she died, Russell’s family donated $1 million to expand a new facility of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding. The new building is adorned by The Otelia and Herman Russell Lobby.

Russell once owned stakes in NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and NHL’s Atlanta Flames. The firm is also involved in the building of the new Falcons stadium due to be completed in 2017.

He was a supporter of the Atlanta Student Movement which impelled the Civil Rights Movement. As one of the many heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, Russell worked as the Chairman of the Board of The Atlanta Inquirer newspaper with alongside other leaders like Jesse Hill, Jr. and Dr. Clinton E. Warner, Jr. while supporting the dream of many desiring to break down the walls of racial inequality. He worked very closely with Black leaders like Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Jesse Hill, Jr.; Vernon Jordan; and Andrew Young in the 1960s, as they emerged in Atlanta amid struggles against discrimination and racial injustices. In 1973, he helped Maynard H. Jackson win election as Atlanta’s first Black mayor. Russell exerted much of his influence behind the scenes, providing counsel and funding when necessary. He became the first Black member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. He, later, became the second Black president of the Chamber, after Jesse Hill, Jr. In addition, he had formerly served on the Boards of leading national corporations and organizations such as the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, Wachovia Bank, Citizens Trust Bank, Georgia Power Company, Georgia Ports Authority, National Service Industries, 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. He had served on the Trustee Board of Tuskegee University and the Georgia State University Advisory Board.

He always gave back to his community and was most fond of supporting youth. He founded the Herman J. Russell Foundation, Inc., which is focused on stimulating the self-sufficiency of youth and the communities in which they live.

Russell received many awards and honors including: the Dow Jones Entrepreneurial Excellence Award; The Atlanta Business Hall of Fame Award; Georgia State University Hall of Fame; Horatio Alger Award; both the National and Georgia Black MBA Association Inc.’s Entrepreneur of the Year Awards; and the 2001 Entrepreneur of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award by Ernst & Young. Mr. Russell is the recipient of honorary degrees from Morehouse College, Georgia State University, Morris Brown College and an honorary doctorate from Tuskegee University. He had the distinction of being the only Atlantan to make the top twenty of Forbes’ 2009 list of “The Wealthiest Black Americans” and the single largest Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) real estate firm in the United States. H. J. Russell and Co. continues to be a nationally recognized leader in the construction and real estate development industry.

The Herman J. Russell Sr. International Center for Entrepreneurship at Georgia State University’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 2014, Russell published his autobiography Building Atlanta: How I Broke through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire.

Recently, Russell had married second wife, Sylvia Anderson, the president of AT&T – Georgia. He is survived by his wife Sylvia; his one daughter, Donata Russell Major; his two sons H. Jerome (Stephanie) Russell and Michael (Lovette) Russell; two stepsons, Eric and Kevin Anderson; his eight grandchildren; and a host of friends and grateful admirers.

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Last updated on March 15, 2020

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