Herman Jerome Russell was born to Maggie Googson and Rogers Russell in Atlanta on December 23, 1930. Russell, the youngest of eight children, grew up in the Summerhill neighborhood, near Turner Field. Before attending David T. Howard High School, Russell worked odd jobs for his father, a plasterer who instilled in Russell an ethic of hard work and prudence. After graduating from high school, Russell worked and, later, earned a degree in building construction from the Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University) in Alabama.In 1953 Russell returned to Atlanta to begin his career. Three years later he married Otelia Hackney, a native of Union Point in Greene County, who had graduated from Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) and taught at the Georgia Avenue School (later the Peter James Bryant Elementary School). The couple eventually had three children.
While a sophomore in high school, Russell purchased his first property, which he later developed and leveraged to pay his college tuition.
After graduating from Tuskegee, Russell performed small-scale plastering and repair services until he inherited his father’s business, then known as the Rogers Russell Plastering Company, upon his father’s death in 1957. He then took on larger projects that ranged from home building to real estate investment. By the decade’s end, Russell’s business portfolio had expanded to include general contracting services through H. J. Russell Construction Company.
Russell also branched out from construction and property management businesses by adding communications, concessions, and sports franchises to his portfolio. At the same time, his construction partnerships expanded to include residential, educational, commercial, and recreational structures. Some of Russell’s better-known projects include numerous Atlanta landmarks, among them the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena, and Turner Field.
In 1994 Russell’s construction businesses were reorganized under H. J. Russell and Company. During this time, the company reported annual sales estimated at $150 million, with project offices in several cities from Miami, Florida, to New York City. Today, the Atlanta-based H. J. Russell and Company is a nationally recognized leader in the construction and real estate development industry, as well as the single largest Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) real estate firm in the United States.
Business, Civic, and Community Leadership
Throughout his prosperous and lengthy career, Russell demonstrated exemplary business, civic, and community leadership. In the early 1960s he became the first black member, and later the second black president, of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Russell, along with such contemporaries as Jesse Hill, Vernon Jordan, and Andrew Young, was part of the new guard of black leaders who emerged in Atlanta amid struggles over racial equality. He counted Martin Luther King Jr. as a friend, and in 1973 he helped Maynard Jackson win election as Atlanta’s first black mayor. Russell exerted much of his influence behind the scenes, providing counsel and funding where needed during the civil rights movement.
Russell has served on the boards of numerous business, civic, and community organizations, among them the Citizens Trust Bank, Central Atlanta Progress, the Butler Street YMCA, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and the Business Council of Georgia. His dedication to entrepreneurship and education is exemplified through his philanthropy. In 1999 Russell pledged $4 million to expand educational programs in entrepreneurship at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University (GSU), and Morehouse College, all in Atlanta, as well as at Tuskegee University.
In December 2009 Russell’s family donated $1 million to expand a new facility of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding. The Otelia and Herman Russell Lobby in the new building honors this gift. The Herman J. Russell Sr. International Center for Entrepreneurship at GSU’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business is also named in Russell’s honor.
Several organizations, among them the Black Business Association of Los Angeles (California) and Junior Achievement of Atlanta, have recognized Russell’s business and civic contributions. In 1991 he received the Horatio Alger Award, an honor recognizing dedicated community leaders who demonstrate individual initiative and a commitment to excellence.