Legendary Atlanta business leader Herman J. Russell passes away

Update: Herman Russell’s wake will be held. at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Friday, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.; and the funeral will be at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 22 at St. Philip AME Church at 240 Candler Rd SE.

By Maria Saporta

Nationally prominent Atlanta business leader Herman J. Russell, 83, passed away Saturday morning after a brief illness.

Russell was the founder and retired CEO of H.J. Russell & Co., a construction and real estate firm that he founded in 1957 and grew into one of the largest minority-owned companies in the United States.

My personal tribute to Herman Russell.

“He made his transition in a peaceful way,” his youngest son, Michael Russell said in a statement released by the family Saturday evening.  “We know he’s at rest.”

In a statement issued Saturday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the city had lost one of its best men.

Herman Russell

Herman Russell

“No words can express the depth of our sorrow and nothing will ever fill the void created by the passing of Mr. Herman J. Russell,” Reed said. “As the founder of one of America’s most successful construction and real estate businesses, Mr. Russell shattered countless barriers and created greater opportunities for all, but especially for African-Americans. When history catches its breath, Mr. Russell’s life work will place him among the most significant heroes of the Civil Rights Movement because of his unwavering contributions and commitment to the progress of this city and nation. Few men have done more to make Atlanta a place where people of all races and backgrounds can bring and build their dreams.”

The mayor went on to say: “Mr. Russell was also a tremendous source of personal inspiration to me throughout my life. Outside of my family, he was my original example of a great man. I was in awe of him, and later, that admiration also came to include respect and love. I will miss him deeply.”

Bernice A. King, CEO of the King Center, called Russell “one of Atlanta’s extraordinary civic leaders and entrepreneurs” who had been a “beloved personal friend and supporter” of both her parents – Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

“I will always remember with fondness the times that I spent in his family home and playing with his children,” Bernice King said in a statement. “We, at The King Center, will be forever grateful for his support and contribution to our history. Many people may not know the important role he played in advising and helping our founder, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, in the late 1970s and early 1980s to bring to fruition her vision of an edifice that would serve as the official living memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Bernice King said that in 1985, H.J. Russell & Company was presented the King Center’s Annual Salute to Greatness Award, one of the King Center’s highest honors. The award is given on an annual basis to individuals and corporations in recognition of their notable leadership and contributions to society.

“The world and Atlanta have indeed lost a remarkable individual and humanitarian,” Bernice King stated. “Mr. Herman Russell will be sorely missed by many, but he leaves behind an exceptional legacy of community concern and corporate social responsibility that will be continued through the outstanding work of his children.  The King Center extends its sincere prayers and condolences during this difficult time to Mrs. Sylvia Russell, his sons (spouses), daughter and the entire H.J. Russell family.”

Russell was born in 1930. When he was only 12, be began working with his father in the plastering business, and he bought his first piece of land four years later.

Soon after, he started H.J. Russell & Co., becoming a successful minority contractor in a city that was on the move. He also developed a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., and he became a behind-the-scenes player in Atlanta’s civil rights movement.

From the 1960s onwards, Russell emerged as a pioneer business leader who forged ties with the white business community during the early days of integration.

Russell’s company and his business influence grew on parallel tracks as he helped build numerous Atlanta landmarks, including Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Georgia Pacific tower, Coca-Cola’s headquarters, the Georgia Dome, Turner Field and Philips Arena.

Russell also became the first African-American member and the second black president (a position now called chairman) of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (now the Metro Atlanta Chamber).

He went on to serve on a number of powerful business and civic boards, including National Service Industries, Citizens Trust Bank, Georgia Power and Wachovia Bank.

Cover of Herman Russell's autobiography

Cover of Herman Russell’s autobiography

He also served on the boards of Central Atlanta Progress, the Commerce Club, the Atlanta Action Forum and the Georgia Ports Authority.

Meanwhile, H. J. Russell & Co. became the largest African-American owned construction company in the country.  Russell finally retired in 2003, and Michael Russell became CEO.

“He was elated and proud of the fact that he was able to share his legacy with others and, most importantly, his grandchildren,” Michael Russell said.  “Herman Russell had a major impact on many of us and he lived a great life.”

Michael Russell said he and his siblings, who each run a portion of the family business, will continue their father’s legacy.

Russell had three children with his first wife – Otelia Hackney Russell, who passed away in 2006. His oldest child – Donata Russell Major followed by H. Jerome Russell and then Michael Russell. Later Russell then married Sylvia Anderson Russell, who was president of AT&T Georgia until she retired a year ago.

In April of this year, Russell’s autobiography was published called: “Building Atlanta: How I Broke Through Segregation to Launch a Business Empire.”

“As a son, I’m honored to carry on the family business and community activities my father started with my brother Jerome and sister Donata,” Michael Russell said. “His life inspires us to continue to strive to help others and be the best we can be.”

In addition to Michael Russell and his wife, Lovette; and his siblings, Jerome Russell and his wife, Stephanie; and Donata Russell Major; Herman Russell is survived by his wife, Sylvia, and two stepsons, as well as eight grandchildren and other family members.

Members of the Atlanta City Council remember Herman Russell:

“Tiffany and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Herman J. Russell. Mr. Russell was an extraordinary visionary, a dynamic leader and a philanthropist who uplifted and mentored so many. By building one of our nation’s most successful minority-owned companies, his legacy is a shining example for small business owners with big dreams. His brilliance is reflected across Atlanta’s skyline and throughout communities across the country. The world is immeasurably better because of Herman J. Russell. Our hearts go out to the Russell family and to all who were touched by his life.”  Atlanta City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell 

“I am truly sadden to hear of the passing of Human J. Russell, a former District 9 (Historic Collier Heights) resident, Atlanta developer and friend. His legacy will be forever embedded in the buildings the he constructed and in his family whom he loved, prepared and passed the baton to carry on” – Atlanta City Council member Felicia A. Moore, District 9

 “Herman Russell was a remarkable gentleman and I greatly appreciate the work he did in District 10.  He left a lasting legacy that will be remembered for years to come.” – Atlanta City Council member C.T. Martin, District 10

“As a young man who used to ride by Herman Russell’s house, his life was an inspiration to me. As so many others have said, his business acumen is evident by his many contributions in the City of Atlanta. But it was his quiet dignity, his assiduous work ethic and his commitment to this community that are his greatest legacy to me as a public servant. He will be missed.” – Atlanta City Council member Andre Dickens, Post 3 at Large

“I had the opportunity to know and share personal moments with Herman during my years before, during and after City Hall.  He was always a gentleman and pleasure to speak with.  Professional, thoughtful and a true inspiration, Herman Russell was quintessentially Atlanta.   His presence will be sorely missed, but his contributions everlasting.” – Atlanta City Council member Mary Norwood Post 2 at Large

I am deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Herman J. Russell. My sadness is only eclipsed by the great admiration and inspiration that his life had up on my own. Having the privilege of knowing him since childhood, as I grew, I was able to watch Mr. Russell grow and build this beautiful city with his hands, his words, and his deeds. He was not just an example of self-made success, but a demonstration of a life well lived. His tremendous works can be found amongst the Atlanta skyline, the businesses he created, but most of all and the beautiful family that he raised. And to the family I would say, as they have shared him with us throughout his life as a mentor, leader, and inspirational hero, we are with them as they mourn the loss of their beloved father. He is one of the heroes of Atlanta’s story, a real life legend to now aspire to. – Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, Post 1 at Large

In addition I would like to offer my condolences to the family of the late former Governor Carl Sanders:

I am deeply saddened by the loss of former governor Carl Sanders. Gov. Sanders served not just his constituency, but the greater good. He was fair when times were unjust, he was wise when his opponents were unreasonable, he was courageous when faced with hatred and    fear-a governor for all Georgians. We mourn with his beautiful family as we celebrate his life in service upon his passing.– Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, Post 1 at Large

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

5 replies
  1. James R. Oxendine says:

    Atlanta was blessed to have Mr. Russell’s sage and strategic leadership as it evolved from a great Southern town into the great international city it has become. His legacy will live on as a beacon to guide as forward into the future.Report

  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    His company has become the required minority partner of choice for many publicly funded and politically sensitive construction projects in Atlanta, due to his political connections. Required MBE (minority business enterprise) partners are one of the reasons publicly funded construction costs so much in Atlanta.
    His company is also one of the largest Section 8 landlords in Atlanta.Report

  3. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch
    And this is why your ilk hates it so much. Politically sensitive construction projects in Atlanta due to political connections? Of course, that is how white-owned companies got contracts (from Democrats and Republicans) for centuries, in Georgia and elsewhere. It is how firms owned by or with connections to politicians are getting tons of contracts left and right in Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall etc. as we speak. The AJC recently had a column about how Sonny and David Perdue used their connections to build an import/export company that will make a ton of the expanded Savannah Port and a bunch of new roads that Sonny Perdue authorized specifically to benefit some of his other businesses. And then there are the business dealings of Nathan Deal, the Bush family and so on …
    Your problem is not that this goes on, but rather that black people like Russell are able to benefit from it. That is why your primary trolling comments on this site are about how Kasim Reed is making money under the table off every city project. You are not upset that it is going on, but rather than you and your folk aren’t the only ones benefiting like always.Report


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