Herman J. Russell, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who turned a small plastering firm into one of the most successful African-American-owned real estate development and construction companies in America, died Saturday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and multiple people close to the Russell family told The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution. He was 83.
Russell, a lifelong Atlantan who counted among his friends several presidents and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped shape the city’s skyline and wielded influence far beyond the Capitol of the South.
He bought his first piece of land when he was 16 for $125. Soon after, he formed a plastering company that over several decades became a successful real estate development and construction conglomerate. Along the way, he broke virtually every racial and economic barrier.
H.J. Russell & Co. built much of Atlanta’s skyline (often through joint ventures), from the Georgia-Pacific headquarters to the Georgia Dome. The firm is a partner in the joint venture selected to build the new nearly $1.3 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium, which is slated to open in 2017.
Russell also was the first black member of what was then called the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the second African-American to serve as its president (a title now known as chairman).
Reed said he learned of Russell’s death shortly after noon Saturday.
“He is one of the best men our city has ever produced,” Reed said. “I can’t express how much we will miss him.”
Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.
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