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Building Atlanta: How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire

Building Atlanta: How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire


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Born into a blue-collar family in the Jim Crow South, Herman J. Russell built a shoeshine business when he was twelve years old—and used the profits to buy a vacant lot where he built a duplex while he was still a teen. Over the next fifty years, he continued to build businesses, amassing one of the nation’s most profitable minority-owned conglomerates.

In Building Atlanta, Russell shares his inspiring life story and reveals how he overcame racism, poverty, and a debilitating speech impediment to become one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs, Atlanta civic leaders, and unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Not just a typical rags-to-riches story, Russell achieved his success through focus, planning, and humility, and he shares his winning advice throughout. As a millionaire builder before the civil rights movement took hold and 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. He provides a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the role the business community, both black and white working together, played in Atlanta’s peaceful progression from the capital of the racially divided Old South to the financial center of the New South.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780912777849
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 744,686
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Herman J. Russell was the founder, CEO, and chairman of the board of H. J. Russell and Company and Concessions International, as well as a nationally recognized entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Atlanta civic leader. Over the course of the last five decades he built one of the nation’s most profitable minority-owned business empires, transforming his father’s one-man plastering company into a construction and real estate conglomerate. Bob Andelman is the author or coauthor of 16 biographical, business, management, self-help, and sports books, including Built from Scratch with Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, the founders of Home Depot; Fans Not Customers with Vernon W. Hill, founder of Commerce Bank and Metro Bank UK; and Mind over Business with Ken Baum. He has written for BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. Andrew Young is an activist and pastor, and a former politician and diplomat. He has served as the mayor of Atlanta, a congressman from Georgia’s fifth congressional district, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. A member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1960s civil rights movement, he was a supporter and friend of Martin Luther King Jr. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Building Atlanta

How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire

By Herman J. Russell, Bob Andelman

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2014 H. J. Russell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-697-4


Life, One Word at a Time

Mrs. Johnson was teaching my fourth-grade class the multiplication tables. I had worked hard at memorizing the times tables, as we called them, so when it was my turn to recite, I went all the way to ten without a mistake. As usual, my classmates snickered when I spoke, but Mrs. Johnson, a plump young woman with a nice smile and an agreeable manner, was all smiles, which made me proud.

The rest of the morning went on as usual. After lunch Mrs. Johnson asked me to step into the hallway. That seemed strange to me; she'd never called me out before. She assured me that nothing was wrong, so I didn't worry about it.

As I was closing the classroom door behind me, I noticed two other teachers standing with Mrs. Johnson. They were smiling. Still, something felt strange.

"Herman," Mrs. Johnson said, "please recite your multiplication tables."

I relaxed. Mrs. Johnson wanted to show off my math skills! I was thrilled, because I wasn't used to being praised at school for anything.

"Go on, Herman," she said. "You can do it."

I took a deep breath.

"One times one equals one," I said softly, then paused. The teachers seemed to have no trouble understanding me, so I continued.

"Two times two equals four ..."

The teachers were quiet and attentive. Their anticipation seemed to grow by the passing moment. By the time I got to five times five they were really excited.

I paused, savoring a rare success.

"Go on," Mrs. Johnson said with a big grin. "Say six times six."

I heard her whisper to one of the other teachers, "Here it comes."

They both giggled.

Six was a word I had real trouble pronouncing. But I trusted Mrs. Johnson, so I did as I was told.

For a moment there was silence. I waited for the affirmation I was sure was coming. Suddenly the teachers burst into laughter. I don't mean they giggled. They laughed out loud without any restraint.

I couldn't believe my ears. I felt sick; my heart sank. I looked from face to face, but each was the same: they were laughing at me. All of them. Doubled over and breathless with laughter.

"Mrs. Johnson," guffawed one of the teachers, "how do you keep a straight face in class? Tell him to say it again!"

"Go on, Herman," said Mrs. Johnson. She was laughing so hard she could hardly talk. "Say it again."

I tried with all my might to enunciate, to pronounce the words correctly, but they came out the same way:

"S-s-shit times s-s-shit equals ..."

The teachers howled even louder than before.

I hung my head, crushed. These grown-ups whom I had trusted were laughing at me just like my nine-year-old classmates did. Even now it is hard to put words to the pain and betrayal I felt.

That experience could have broken me or made me bitter, but it did neither. Instead, it made me more self-reliant. That is what I learned that day. No matter how hard they tried, my parents couldn't always be there to protect me. When all was said and done, I had to look out for myself.

It was the first of many painful experiences in my life that left marks that will never go away. I can't say that I would choose it again if I had the choice, but I can say that out of that mess I gained something that has played a crucial role in my success: I learned to define myself. I refused to let the teasing and embarrassment make me bow my head. I kept on keeping on.

No one would ever again define me but me.

* * *

I was born in Atlanta on December 23, 1930.

At that time, the city was deeply segregated and the nation was wallowing in the Great Depression. The most popular song that year was "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Its title was in the mouths of folks all over the country from coast to coast.

Herbert Hoover was our president then. As the result of Hoover's shortsighted policies, the national economy had crashed. Banks failed and even the most menial jobs became scarce. Camps of desperately poor people sprang up on roadsides and under bridges all over America. Folks showed how much they blamed Hoover for the mess the economy was in by calling the camps Hoovervilles.

The average income that year was $1,650, but my parents' combined income came nowhere near that. Even though a gallon of gasoline only cost ten cents and a loaf of bread seven cents, times were still hard for my family.

The average new home then cost $6,500 — but not in my neighborhood. Everyone where we lived was poor and lived in shotgun shacks — so called because they were narrowly built, with one room opening into the next in a way that a shot fired from a gun could go cleanly through the houses from front to back if all doors were left open. No one had front yards, just patches of dirt or gravel. My family's home was a shotgun shack and it certainly wasn't worth anywhere near $6,500, maybe because its thin walls let in as much cold winter air as they kept out. Or because it lacked hot water. Oh, and one other thing holding down its resale value: it was in a poor black neighborhood.

My earliest memory is of standing in front of a black, coal-burning stove. It was a strange feeling. The stove was hot, so it warmed my front. But the rest of the house was so cold that my back froze. I didn't know whether to sweat or shiver; I probably did both.

It sounds strange now, but although we lived in the city, we were so poor that not only did we not have hot water, we didn't have electricity, either. We read by candles and kerosene lamps and bathed in a big galvanized tin tub filled with water that we heated on our wood-burning stove. (Toilets were located on the back porch or in the backyard.) My mama washed our clothes in a black kettle in the yard, stirring it with a big wooden ladle until the water boiled, then rubbing her hands raw on the hard ridges of her washboard. She never experienced cooking on a gas range or washing clothes in a washing machine until she was a senior citizen, when I was grown and able to buy appliances for her.

My parents worked hard to provide for their eight children, but I can still remember having to put pasteboard in the bottom of my shoes when the leather wore out to make them last until my parents could see their way clear to have them re-soled. New shoes were something I rarely saw.

We lived at 776 Martin Street in a "colored" neighborhood called Summerhill, located in the southeastern section of the city's downtown business district. It was typical of black communities of the time. Local businesses consisted mostly of insurance agencies, pool halls, funeral homes, liquor stores, and nightclubs.

You could usually tell where the colored people lived in Atlanta because most of the streets were unpaved. We didn't even have sidewalks. We paid our taxes like everyone else, but it seems that money went to pave the streets and sidewalks in the white neighborhoods. Of course, black people resented it, but mostly we accepted it as the way things were — we lacked political strength and media access to complain or do anything about it.

Some might say there wasn't anything particularly special about Summerhill, but that didn't matter; we still had a genuine sense of community. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone looked out for each other's children. If you did something wrong and a neighbor caught you, you could expect two whippings — one from the neighbor and another when you got home. As a result, we had little serious crime. I don't remember us even locking our doors.

* * *

The difficulty I had pronouncing words and sounds was a trait I picked up from my daddy. But it wasn't clear to my parents that I had a speech problem until I entered school and my teachers and the other students had a hard time understanding me. My father had his own severe challenges making simple conversation, so they may not have been surprised that my problem would be a lifelong one.

My speech impediment made growing up tough. I knew what I wanted to say, but most of the time I just couldn't make it come out right. Children can be cruel to those who are different. That's how it was with me. My elementary schoolmates laughed at me and teased me constantly. It seemed like someone was making fun of me whenever I opened my mouth. It hurt, but because I was loved at home I usually could just ignore it or, at the least, try to laugh it off.

* * *

My mama, Maggie Russell, was a soft-spoken woman, but the lessons I took from her were as powerful in their own way as what my father taught.

Part South Carolina Geechee, she was a pretty woman with flawless skin and straight black hair, always slim and neat in appearance.* She attended Benedict College, a women's school in South Carolina, for several years. That made her better educated than most people she met back then, black or white, man or woman.

In those days, however, there were few jobs open to black women except domestic work, which we called day work. My mama worked as a domestic for a white family on Atlanta Avenue, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and looking after their children. I never heard her complain about her employers, so I guess they treated her right. That said, my mama left home early in the morning to walk the mile or so to work and was gone from her family all day.

Many days, Mama brought home leftovers. That made a difference, because things were hard in the Depression years. And the food was tasty, because my mama had cooked it! She was an excellent cook. What she prepared was not particularly fancy by today's standards, but what she did make couldn't be beat! Her favorite dishes were simple — fried chicken, pork chops, bacon, greens, yams, mashed potatoes, string beans, and banana pudding — but what she did to them was out of this world. My father's favorites were real southern fare: pig tails, pig ears, and lamb chops. The way my mama seasoned those dishes made them almost jump off the plate with flavor. Tastes have changed since then and many people don't eat that type of food today, but my daddy and I loved it.

I have been all over the world, been entertained by diplomats and heads of state, but my mama kept the neatest house I've ever seen anywhere. Our furniture might have been makeshift and homemade, but our home was spotless; you couldn't find a speck of dust in it with a white glove. Our linens were probably the least expensive and lowest quality you could buy, but my mama kept them clean and pretty just like the most expensive grades.

It was Mama who was the disciplinarian of the house. While it is true that my father never whipped his children, that never stopped my mama. She believed in the biblical proverb "Spare the rod and spoil the child." And she was determined not to spoil any of her children. She wasn't mean, mind you, but she never let us get away with a thing. You can be sure that not one of her eight children ever talked back to her or my father or in any way challenged their authority. She was tough on us because she was determined to raise good, well-mannered, respectful human beings who would one day enter a white-dominated world and had to sometimes go along to get along. In this, she succeeded. None of her children ever saw the inside of a jail or earned bad reports from school or community. All eight of us became good, upstanding, well-respected citizens.

My mama was dedicated to the Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Frazier Street. Folks nowadays make a big deal about tithing, but tithing was just the beginning for my mama; she gave her 10 percent and then some. She didn't give because she was trying to buy God's favor. She sincerely believed it was her duty to serve her church and her community.

Many times in my adult life I have been honored as a philanthropist. If I do have a philanthropic bone in my body, I'm sure it comes from my mama. Even during the Depression when my daddy sometimes only had a few days of Works Progress Administration (WPA) work at a stretch, my mama was always willing to share what little food we had with others.

She was always doing something at the church. She worked hard all week, and still, come Friday and Saturday, you could see her selling hot dogs on our front porch for the church general fund. Or you could find her at the church itself engaged in any number of supportive tasks, anything to serve.

* * *

My mama was forty when I was born.

I was the last of eight children: six boys and two girls. By the time I arrived, most of my siblings had already left home. The oldest was twenty years ahead of me; the youngest, my brother Rogers Junior, was three years older.

By the time I came along, my parents were tired from raising the seven that came before me. I don't think either Mama or Daddy had much energy left to give me a lot of personal attention or direction. It's not that they didn't take good care of me — they made sure I was clean, well fed, and safe, and they taught me good manners. There were a few things for which you could really get in trouble in my mother's house: not doing your chores was a big one. You had to do them before you went anyplace. And if you were disrespectful or disobedient, you'd have a big problem under her roof. And I knew my parents loved me. It's just that when I came into the picture, I got the basics and little more.

Between her job and looking after my brothers and sisters and my father and keeping up with me, it's a wonder my mama found time to sleep, much less the time to teach me. She had her hands full making sure everybody was fine and doing what he or she should. My mama obviously had an appreciation for education, but she had so much to do and so many people to take care of that I don't remember her ever reading to me or helping me with my homework. She never taught me my ABCs. When I entered the first grade at E. P. Johnson Elementary School, I was not prepared like the other kids in my class. I couldn't even write my name. I befriended one teacher, Mrs. Ford, who tutored me after school in reading and spelling. The only good news in reports home was that I was pretty good in math.

And Mama certainly had her hands full keeping up with me; I was always into something.

* * *

I may have been Mama's youngest, but I was not the last child Maggie Russell raised in that house. When I was ten, my brother Robert Lee and his wife divorced and their two-year-old son, Calvin, and his older sister, Robbie, age five, came to live with us.

Calvin and I shared a bedroom until I went off to college, and he became more like a little brother to me than a nephew. Before then, I had slept in an old army surplus bunk bed — my daddy tore it down and made it into twin beds.

For the most part, I liked having Calvin around, but there were those moments that any boy with a little brother knows about, such as when he'd get into my prized marble collection. As for Robbie, she helped me learn to read properly, for which I will always be grateful. She was a very smart girl.

Like all the Russell men, whether sons or grandsons or cousins, Calvin became a skilled worker on family plastering jobs. My father put a hawking trowel in his hand when he was nine years old. It wore blisters on his hand and my father told him, "Go over there, boy, and pee in your hand and rub them together. It'll be all right."

When Calvin was old enough, he and our nephew Norris joined me on plastering jobs with my daddy. The younger boys had to get up early in the morning and load the trucks and get to the job, build the scaffolds, and have the mud ready when my father and I and the older crew got to the job.

I taught Calvin not to be afraid of work and how to make a living. As Calvin got older, he trained as a plasterer, eventually moving on to sheetrocking. He became one of my most trusted foremen in the dry-wall company and a superintendent in the building division.

But our ties go deeper than that. Calvin's daughter, Valerie Callaway, came up through the company to become a vice president of H.J. Russell & Company's property management operation. And his son, Calvin Junior, oversees the maintenance department.

* * *

My father, Rogers Russell, was an enterprising man. Today we would call him an entrepreneur. He had a house full of children to feed, but he rarely worked for anyone else, except for a few days during the Great Depression.

My father only had a third-grade education, but that wasn't particularly rare in those days for black folks. The tightly shut doors of opportunity and the low wages most blacks were paid meant that many had to join the workforce at an early age to help feed their families.

What my father lacked in education, though, he more than made up in smarts. He had a PhD in Common Sense. And he had the self-confidence to make a living for his family with his own hands. My father had his own trade: he was a master plasterer. Not just any plasterer — proud and meticulous, my father was a master tradesman.

He worked on many of the grand homes in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood as well as commercial properties such as the historic Fox Theatre (originally the Yaarab Temple Shrine Mosque) in downtown Atlanta. Proud and meticulous, my daddy was an artist with plaster.


Excerpted from Building Atlanta by Herman J. Russell, Bob Andelman. Copyright © 2014 H. J. Russell. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction by Former US Ambassador Andrew Young


PART I: Growing, Working, and Learning

1. Life, One Word at a Time

2. High School Hero

3. Tuskegee Institute: An Educated Class

PART II: H. J. Russell & Company: Atlanta’s Do-It-All Contractor

4. Black Entrepreneurship Takes Hold, Part 1

5. Otelia Hackney: A Black Woman Emerges

PART III: Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement

6. Swimming at the Deep End of Social Change

7. Black Entrepreneurship Takes Hold, Part 2

8. My Big Greek Brother (From Another Mother)

9. Desegregating the Good Ol’ Boys

10. A Leg Up and Over: Joint Ventures

PART IV: It’s a Living

11. Before Takeoff and Landing, Visit Us at Concessions International

12. The Beer Years

13. The H. J. Russell Institute of Good Common Sense

14. Mixing Business and Politics

PART V: Family First

15. The Wonders of Otelia

16. Born Leaders

17. . . . And Hello to Sylvia

PART VI: Sixty Years Later

18. All the Rest of My Days



About the Authors

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