Norris Bumstead Herndon was the second president of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, founded by his father, Alonzo Herndon, in 1905. Herndon was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 15, 1897, the only child of Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil, a graduate and teacher at Atlanta University, and Alonzo Herndon. His family’s light complexion allowed them to easily fit into the surrounding white community without question, and Herndon"s early education was in the Atlanta Public School System. In 1905 Alonzo Herndon took seven-year-old Norris to the founding meeting of the Niagara Movement, the precursor organization to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Norris Herndon’s mother died in 1910, just four months after the family moved into their new home. It devastated young Herndon, who according to friends who would later report that he was struggling with his sexuality and identity. With a stern father who insisted upon “the straight and narrow course,” Herndon learned to deny his feelings toward men and conduct a very private social life as an adult.
In 1919 Herndon graduated from Atlanta University. He then obtained a Master’s in Business Administration from Harvard University’s Business School in Massachusetts in 1921. He was one of the only two African Americans in his graduating class. Young Herndon joined his father’s firm, first as a cashier and then eventually as the company’s first vice president.
After his father’s death in 1927, and at the young age of twenty-eight, Herndon was elected the second president of Atlanta Life Insurance Company. In that same election, his stepmother Jessie (Gillespie) became vice president. When he took the helm, company assets totaled just over $1 million, but through decades of cautious management and prudent investments including some significant acquisitions, Atlanta Life’s assets grew to $54 million. At the time of Herndon’s retirement in 1973, Atlanta Life had grown to a company with assets of $84 million.
Shortly after his stepmother,