Herman J. Russell, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who turned a small plastering firm into one of the nation’s most successful African-American-owned real estate development and construction companies, died Saturday. 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 his hometown.
Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, on Saturday called Russell “one of the giants of our time.
“In every phase of Atlanta development from Hartsfield (airport) to the present, he was a major and dominant influence,” Young said.
Russell bought his first piece of land when he was 16 for $125. Soon after, he formed the plastering company that over several decades became a successful 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 $1 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium, scheduled to open in 2017.
The Russell empire also includes Concessions International, a hospitality company that operates the famed Paschal’s Restaurant in Castleberry Hill and restaurants in airports across the country, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.
Russell, the youngest of eight children, was born during the heart of the Depression in the Atlanta community of Summerhill. He remembered that when he was 5 years old, his father couldn’t find work.
“I wanted to help my mother and my father, but there wasn’t much money in the neighborhood,” Russell said in a 2006 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There was just no way to go to work at a very early age.”
Soon, he started a shoe-shining business and sold Coca-Colas.
“Back in those days, I faced some tough segregation,” Russell said in an interview in March. “When I was 14, I went in front of the Atlanta City Council (known then as the Board of Aldermen) to ask for the rezoning of a lot that the city owned so I could expand my business. I got nervous in front of all the white aldermen. I also had a stuttering problem at that time.
“One of them looked at me. He used the n-word and asked, ‘Why can’t you shine shoes on your front porch?’ That’s when I was reborn.”
Russell both built a visible and admired company and worked behind the scenes on racial and economic issues. He 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.
When history was being made in Atlanta, chances were Russell was present. A priceless photo shows Russell in his living room with Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young in the early 1960s, creating strategy for the civil rights movement.
“He is one of the best men our city has ever produced,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “I can’t express how much we will miss him.”
Civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Lowery said he saw Russell during former President Bill Clinton’s recent visit to Atlanta before the Nov. 4 election, and that Russell said he was not feeling well.
“He was willing to sacrifice for the good of the community,” Lowery said. “Herman’s spirit permeated the community. He was a great citizen, a great businessman and a brother. I loved him and he will be missed.”
In 2006, Russell was one of the first Atlantans to contribute $1 million for the successful acquisition of Martin Luther King’s papers, now owned by Morehouse College and a part of the recently opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Russell partnered with noted white business leaders such as developer John Portman and Aaron’s founder Charles Loudermilk. He also made money available for bail bonds during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and was a heavy donor to King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Young said.
Russell’s office showcased photos of him with U.S. presidents in the White House. But he invested most of his time and energy in his hometown.
Former Mayor Shirley Franklin in an interview several years ago called Russell “a superb example of the American dream.”
“He used his talents and experience and hard work to have one of the most successful businesses and African-American businesses in the city and the country,” she said.
Russell said his modest beginnings had a lasting impact.
“Since I’ve seen so much hard times coming up as a young person, I could never walk away from improving people’s lives,” Russell said.
Vernon Jordan, a special adviser to presidents, went to high school with Russell and in an interview several years ago recalled Russell served as the campaign manager for two people who were running for class president and vice president.
“Herman had to make a speech,” Jordan said, and his speech impediment made Russell difficult to understand.
“No one could understand him, but everybody liked him,” Jordan said. “He helped get them elected.”
“His speech impediment was an asset,” Egbert Perry, a protege of Russell’s and now CEO of development firm The Integral Group, once told the AJC. “It caused a lot of people to underestimate him. But he was sharp as a tack.”
One person who initially underestimated Russell was Robert Holder, a fellow builder. Russell was the low bidder as a subcontractor for Midtown’s Colony Square, but it was 1968 and Holder was reluctant to give such a big job to a small, little-known, minority firm.
But Holder did give Russell an interview — holding a business conference with a black person for the first time in his life — and believed that Russell wanted a chance to prove himself.
Their relationship grew into a real partnership, beginning with the building of the new Hartsfield International Airport (now Hartsfield-Jackson).
“Delta put us together in a shotgun wedding,” Holder said in an interview several years ago. “They picked Herman first, and then we were brought in. The lawyers drew up a joint-venture agreement that was about two inches thick. We waded through all of that. And at the last meeting in our conference room, I proposed to name the joint venture: Holder-Russell. But I didn’t want to make assumptions about putting our name first.
“Herman said, ‘If you give me 1 percent more of the profit, you can take my name off of it altogether.’”
Over the years, the Holders and the Russells became close friends as well as business partners.
About a decade ago, Russell turned over the operations of the H.J. Russell Co. and the other family interests to his children. But instead of naming his elder son and namesake as CEO as expected, he chose his youngest son, Michael. Herman Jerome was put in charge of the company’s development arm. Daughter Donata was picked to head the family philanthropic arm.
Such a move could have destroyed other families and made for an awkward relationship among siblings, but Herman Russell executed a smooth transition. Two years later, Jerome donated one of his kidneys to his brother.
“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.”
Russell never really stopped working, staying involved as chairman of his companies and in Castleberry Hill where his businesses were based.
He replaced dilapidated low-income housing with mixed-income communities near the Atlanta University Center.
In 2006, Otelia Hackney Russell, his wife of 50 years, died. At the time, Russell talked about how his foundation was “going to be a big foundation” because “a lot of my wealth will go into that foundation once I leave the world.” Russell later remarried.
Russell is survived by his wife, Sylvia, sons H. Jerome and Michael Russell, daughter Donata Russell Major, two stepsons and eight grandchildren.
Staff writers Katie Leslie and Eric Stirgus contributed to this report. Former staff writer Maria Saporta also contributed.
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