Herman J. Russell, who grew from a shoe shine boy to one of the prominent builders of Atlanta and a strong civil rights influence, died Saturday after a brief illness. He was 83.
Russell overcame a severe speech impediment as a child to create H.J. Russell and Company, a construction business that was an integral part of the creation of the structures along the city’s skyline, the Georgia Dome, Turner Field, Philips Arena and Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, among hundreds of other projects.
He was the first Black member and the second Black president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. During the Civil Rights era, Russell financed a great portion of the movement and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., who used to relax in Russell’s home and swim in his indoor pool as a way of escaping the rigors of the civil rights struggle, Russell said while speaking at the National Book Club Conference in Atlanta in August. He was honored with the Terrie M. Williams Inspiration Award and shared stories of his rise in business and as a man during a time of vast racial strife and limitations placed on Blacks.
He worked at his company, founded in 1952, as recently as last year.
The company is also involved in building the new Falcons stadium, which should be completed in 2017 and costs nearly $1.3 billion.
Additionally, Russell had a hand in helping Maynard Jackson become Atlanta’s first Black mayor in 1973.
In 1999, the philanthropist pledged $4 million for educational programs in entrepreneurship at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia State University, Morehouse College and Tuskegee University. In December 2009, the Russell family donated $1 million for the expansion of a new facility at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding.
Russell has served on several boards of businesses, civic and community organizations like Citizens Trust Bank, Central Atlanta Progress, the Butler Street YMCA, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Business Council of Georgia.
Russell grew up in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta and attended David T. Howard High School. He graduated from the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in Alabama. He and his wife had three children.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he learned of Russell’s death shortly after noon on Saturday.
“He is one of the best men our city has ever produced,” Reed told the AJC. “I can’t express how much we will miss him.”