Businessman, civic leader Herman Russell dies at age 83

ATLANTA — 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. 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.

“I’ve known Herman Russell for 40 years.  To me, he was always a living example of how you could be successful,” said Channel 2’s Monica Pearson.

Russell was one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs the nation has ever seen.

Russell 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).

"Herman was always there.  Whether it was a commercial venture, a civic activity or political, there's not a politician in Atlanta that didn't seek his support and I don't think anyone won without it,” said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell.

Russell had a guiding hand in the development of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and in the strategy for the civil rights movement.  His friends remember a man who loved his family, loved creating things built to last and loved to give.

"He fully understood the principle that's a biblical principle.  To those to whom much is given, much is required.  And he always gave back,” said Pearson.