I SEE U, Episode 42: The Gay Black Civil Rights Financier [Encore]

I SEE U examines the mystique behind the late millionaire, Norris Herndon, as a disappearing family legacy looms before the public knows anything about them. This episode is an encore of the April 2nd, 2022 original broadcast.

Atlanta Civil Rights Financier Norris Herndon and the Herndon family


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His father, born into slavery, had become one of the first African American millionaires in the United States. His mother, though devoted to Black civil rights, was a renowned actress and had kept her racial background a secret. And in 1897, Alonzo and Adrienne Herndon had a son – their only child – named Norris Herndon, who would become the second President, inherited by his father, of the historic, Black-owned Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Behind the scenes, Norris was a major financier of the Civil Rights Movement and often gave large sums of money to several organizations, community groups and universities. He also lived a very private life and learned to hide his attraction for men. Could his homosexuality be a reason why his story remains unknown to so many people? Join host Eddie Robinson as I SEE U takes an in-depth look at the life of Norris Herndon with insight and perspective from writer/columnist, Ryan Lee and history scholar, Pamela Flores – both based in Atlanta.


Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Eddie Robinson: He was a prominent African American businessman, a philanthropist who helped finance much of the Civil Rights. And like many narratives of Black historical figures, we recognize their accomplishments, acknowledge their achievement. But how come when we speak of the late millionaire Norris Herndon, His sexual orientation was kept secret to the public.

[00:00:21] Eddie Robinson: Would this be the reason why his story remained unknown for decades?

[00:00:25] Pamela Flores: There’s more to the question, right? Because it actually maybe evokes emotion. Right? That it’s like, wow, why is it that it’s not talked about?

[00:00:35] Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson, and stay tuned as we take a closer look at the mystery behind the black gay millionaire that nobody knows.

[00:00:42] Eddie Robinson: Join us for a candid chat about Norris Herndon with writer columnist for The Georgia Voice, Ryan Lee, and historian Pamela Flores. Oh yeah, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

[00:01:00] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. He was a part of the Atlanta elite, a prominent African American businessman who picked up an MBA from Harvard. He was a philanthropist, even a major financier of the Civil Rights Movement. He was also gay. Can’t help but wonder if that might have been the reason why so many people didn’t know about him.

[00:01:31] Eddie Robinson: His name was Norris Herndon, the second president of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which was founded by his father, Alonzo Herndon, who died in 1927 in Atlanta. Norris’s father, Alonzo, was born into slavery and a sharecropper in rural Georgia. But yet founded Atlanta Life in the year 1905 and ended up thriving to become one of the first African American millionaires in the United States.

[00:02:00] Eddie Robinson: First achieving success by owning and operating some three large barbershops in Atlanta that prominently served white customers. But his only child, Norris, will be the focus of this episode of I SEE U. I’m so excited to connect with a writer. Who also felt compelled to learn and study more about this man, a man who remains unknown and recently penned a comprehensive article about him, a digital publication, The Reckoning.

[00:02:35] Eddie Robinson: Please join me in welcoming to I SEE U with Eddie Robinson, writer, columnist. Ryan Lee. Ryan, thanks so much for joining us virtually from Atlanta.

[00:02:43] Ryan Lee: Thanks for having me, Eddie. I appreciate it.

[00:02:46] Eddie Robinson: Yeah, I absolutely, Ryan, had no idea who this man was. And I’m approaching a half century in age myself, right? Surrounded by family members, growing up Who were a part of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, though, I wasn’t alive, you know, when the civil rights movement started, of course, but it’s also surprising to think that not many Atlanta residents knew who this man was, right?

[00:03:12] Ryan Lee: Yeah. I mean, I’ve spoken with Atlanta natives who said they had no idea. I’ve spoken with Morris Brown alumni, you know, which is right across the street from the Herndon home and the herndon, the family had a very instrumental role in all of the HBCUs, but particularly Morris Brown, but folks who, you know, traversed that campus and had no clue about the family story.

[00:03:33] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. And I’ll tell you quite honestly, you know, it was from my Facebook feed. You know, of a gay digital video of someone mentioning his name in a, did you know, presentation, you know, that in there and the video was talking about a gay man who had been responsible for financing much of the Civil Rights Movement.

[00:03:53] Eddie Robinson: I mean, how did you get caught up into this story? You know, were you assigned to it? Did you have a vested interest in it yourself? Why was this story so important to you and what led you to want to study and cover the story, which I love the title, the black gay millionaire. That nobody knows. That’s the name of the article.

[00:04:11] Ryan Lee: It’s great. I appreciate it. I had a long interest in Norris. I first learned about him in about 2004. It was about two years after the book on the Herndons was published by Carole Merritt. And there was a Black human rights campaign Atlanta board member. Who approached me and was like, Hey, have you ever heard of Norris Herndon?

[00:04:30] Ryan Lee: You know, I went to go tour the family home and they were pretty open about him being gay. And you know, it’s in the book that he was gay. So that was my first time getting it on my radar. And then I went to go visit the home and was fascinated. The publication that I was working for at the time wasn’t interested in that story.

[00:04:45] Ryan Lee: Um, and then, uh, the Herndon home got into some financial issues, the organization that runs it. And so then we ran a story on that and, uh, Ronald Moore, the, the gentleman who originally told me about the Herndon, he was very upset that, you know, we hadn’t covered, you know, the story prior to, and now it gets in trouble.

[00:05:04] Ryan Lee: So that always stung, uh, because I knew that that was absolutely true that, you know, we hadn’t covered the basic story, but now we’ve covered the scandal. And so I’ve always wanted to revisit that basic story. And then I live caddy corner to the Herndon home so I can, I step outside my front door and I can see their backyard.

[00:05:22] Ryan Lee: And so it’s always been somewhat enchanting to imagine, you know, the parties that would go on up there and things like that. And so I’ve always had a curiosity about sort of the Herndon spirit.

[00:05:33] Eddie Robinson: Why do you think, Ryan, there is little to hardly any confirmed accounts and information about the Herndon family?

[00:05:42] Ryan Lee: I think that, uh, part of it is, you know, uh, Norris’ secrecy and, and, uh, secrecy is kind of a pejorative word. It makes it sound like, you know, there’s some malintent there, but just his privacy, his devout privacy and, uh, reclusion from the world. As I was in this process and somewhat frustrated by the lack of information out there, it’s, uh, you know, you had to stop and realize, well, this is what happens when, you know, you spend your whole life protecting folks knowing about you, then it’s no surprise that once you’re gone, then a lot of folks don’t know about you. So that’s one, just an extension of the family’s privacy. Um, two is the lack of, uh, a lineage. Norris was Alonzo’s only son and, uh, Norris had no children. And so unlike other families here in Atlanta, whether it be the King children, Or John Wesley Dobbs children who would go on and become the first Black mayor of Atlanta and things like that.

[00:06:36] Ryan Lee: There’s been folks left behind to make sure that certain stories are protected. And there hasn’t been anybody left behind to make sure that the Herndon story is protected. And then thirdly, and this was probably the most disheartening aspect of the story that I found, was that Norris understanding that he didn’t have any heirs.

[00:06:54] Ryan Lee: Prior to his death, he created the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Foundation, and that foundation inherited his wealth and was dedicated to preserving both the home, Atlanta Life Insurance, the company, and just continue to help the community. And just at a glance that I was able to take, that foundation has failed miserably on all three of those, uh, fronts.

[00:07:17] Ryan Lee: And, uh, most notably in making sure that the Herndon story is known and preserved.

[00:07:25] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re chatting with Ryan Lee. He’s a writer based in Atlanta for The Georgia Voice. He wrote an article a few months back for the digital website, The Reckoning, about the Black millionaire, Norris Herndon, who died in the late 70s.

[00:07:41] Eddie Robinson: But not many people knew that he financed much of the civil rights movement, and he was gay. You know, as you were writing this article, Ryan, what was it that You still find surprising or even quite compelling or shocking about Norris Herndon and his family, or perhaps it was, you know, his father or his, his family in general, you know, as you did your research and you did your examination, you know, what surprised you the most about what you would come up with?

[00:08:12] Ryan Lee: The idea probably that he was hiding or, you know, like, I mean, that, that is the first impression that you would get just hearing from the stories that he’d kind of walled himself off and kind of hid from the world. And, uh, you know, being on the down low to the extreme. And so I write a piece about how it’s hard to recognize any heroism in that, because it feels like he withdrew from society rather than either participate or try to move it forward, but just getting immersed in that time and the pressures that he was under from his family and from the conventions of mid century America back in the 20th century, many things were expected of him for how he was supposed to live his life and the way that he declined to go by other people’s script and of the way that he chose to find his own path turned out to be more inspiring than I originally perceived from my basic outline of the story.

[00:09:11] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. And it sounds like Norris struggled with being gay, or at least, you know, that’s what, you know, historians and those who had been familiar with him characterized him as, you know, trying to live up to the expectations set forth by his father and society as a whole back in that era.

[00:09:29] Eddie Robinson: I mean, here I am as a man who had only come out to my mom and dad in 2007 and it was over the phone, you know that I was so nervous that took my best friend really to help provide me with the support that I needed right to get through that ordeal. I can only imagine living in this era. What it could have been like, you know, struggling with all of this and the pressures from his father and from what I gathered after reading your article that, you know, his father really wanted him to be active, perhaps even in sports so that that helped him with his academia at Harvard, because I think he wrote a letter or something saying that he was he was alone.

[00:10:11] Eddie Robinson: He was lonely. At Harvard. I mean, the pressures of being gay and being Black in the early 1900s, you know, that had to have been intense, right?

[00:10:20] Ryan Lee: Oh, absolutely. And one interesting thing is that he wasn’t closeted in the sense that we may think of, but that we’re, uh, during his time, uh, his parents. Clearly knew about it.

[00:10:31] Ryan Lee: His father had some objections to it, but it wasn’t a gratuitous homophobia that he encountered his father was probably about as good as one could be. Uh, you know, in the early, uh, 1900s on that issue, obviously disappointed in terms of legacy and expectations and things like that, but doesn’t seem to be.

[00:10:50] Ryan Lee: Any, a direct confrontation between the two of them regarding the piety of, you know, him enjoying men company or things like that. His mother died before he had a true chance to, you know, form that part of his identity, but you know, she probably knew. And then most surprising that all his peers and everyone knew that, uh, you know, Norris had some sweetness.

[00:11:11] Ryan Lee: And I think it speaks back to that time in Black communities where folks knew, you know, that there were, you know, certain uncles and certain neighbors who had that sweetness and they were still part of the community and, you know, it was, there were limitations on how much they could express that, but there was an awareness of that sort of queerness.

[00:11:31] Eddie Robinson: That’s fascinating because even in that era, you would think that, especially your father, you know, he would be very, very upset and, you know, just really disowning him perhaps on some level, but it was not that he accepted it, right? You know. Give us some, uh, a bit more insight as to Norris’s relationship with his father, because I did get the gist that I remember, you know, Norris complaining about him being lonely at Harvard, but his father would write and tell him, go to church, serve the Lord.

[00:12:04] Eddie Robinson: And then you won’t get lonesome. And you know what, Ryan, I mean, that’s taken exactly out of the pages of Eddie Robinson, parental guidance that I received when I lived in Minnesota, both my mom and dad would always push me to attend church, you know, join the choir, stay busy, be active in the Lord’s house.

[00:12:23] Eddie Robinson: Um, but it was really quite fascinating to read that about Norris and his relationship with his own father. And he wasn’t, like you said, it wasn’t hardcore and stern and like, you know, disowning. We don’t want to talk to you again. But they wanted to sort of encourage him to do something else and, and, and that more than likely hurt his mentality.

[00:12:48] Ryan Lee: Yeah, they had a complicated relationship, uh, Norris was closest with his mother, uh, Adrienne and he sort of took after her. She was a, uh, a renowned actress and lover of the arts and things like that. And so he had developed that affinity, uh, throughout childhood and things like that. She died when he was 12 years old.

[00:13:06] Ryan Lee: So it left Alonzo and Norris by themselves for a little bit until Alonzo remarried. And thankfully, uh, his new wife was very supportive and, and loving them Norris. And so, uh, whatever friction or alienation might’ve occurred between father and son didn’t blow out of proportion. I think mainly they were from two different generations of Black masculinity.

[00:13:29] Ryan Lee: You know, I mean, Alonzo was, you know, born on a plantation and sold grease and picked cotton and did everything with his hands and built. A fortune out of nothing. And then by the time, you know, no, uh, Norris came along, you know, they were a family of substantial means. And so Norris’s childhood was a lot different, a lot more luxurious and leisurely, and just wasn’t as industrious.

[00:13:53] Ryan Lee: And I think a lot of men of Alonzo’s generations, you know, it’s common today, you know, men always think that the new generation is soft. And so, uh, they had, uh, those types of conflicts, but Alonzo, uh, clearly had tremendous affection for his son who brought him to the Niagara Movement, the planning sessions for that, uh, which would later become the NAACP.

[00:14:15] Ryan Lee: You know, it was important for his son to be there. And then most importantly. Rather than disowning him, he set up everything so that Norris would continue Atlanta life, that he would inherit the presidency, inherit Alonzo’s fortune, and things like that, and I think that Atlanta Life was as much Alonzo’s child as Norris, and Alonzo trusted Norris to, to shepherd that child once he was gone.

[00:14:44] Eddie Robinson: Coming up. We’ll continue our chat with writer Ryan Lee as we learn a bit more about the late Norris Herndon and find out why much of his story remained untold for so long and then later we’ll connect with historian Pamela Flores who’ll share details as to what it was like for the Herndon family while they lived in a beautiful two story mansion completed in 1910.

[00:15:11] Eddie Robinson: The Atlanta house is now a museum and national historic landmark. But what is the current condition of the home? Find out as I SEE U with Eddie Robinson returns in just a moment.

[00:15:28] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or a comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:15:56] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with columnist Ryan Lee. He’s a writer based in Atlanta for The Georgia Voice. He recently penned an article about the Black millionaire Norris Herndon for The Reckoning. Digital website platform that highlights unique stories of the Black LGBTQ community. You know, Ryan Norris and his family had a light complexioned skin, uh, as African Americans and they could each what a pass for Caucasian easily blending into Atlanta’s white community.

[00:16:31] Eddie Robinson: And, you know, it just, just hits me, you know, back in Mississippi, back in the day, my late grandfather. Who is light skinned as well, who was light skinned, I mean he’s passed away, but he had 12 brothers, 8 of which served in World War II. After being in the military, 3 of the brothers obtained a small business loan.

[00:16:50] Eddie Robinson: To form a dry cleaning establishment, but that money, you know, those loans that they receive certainly wouldn’t have materialized had it not been for their skin color.

[00:17:01] Ryan Lee: Yeah.

[00:17:01] Eddie Robinson: Right. As they were able to pass for white in the sixties during the civil rights movement, their dry cleaning establishment served as really one of the most active gathering places for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, or SNCC workers. My grandfather would allow them to use telephones, and if they needed transportation, and when necessary, to avoid attacks from the Ku Klux Klan, you know, they could hide among the racks of the clean clothes. And the cleaners, you know, really sort of escaped being bombed.

[00:17:31] Eddie Robinson: In Macomb, Mississippi, because my grandfather, along with his brothers, would take turns guarding the business. And again, it was their light skin color that helped guide them and. Protect them in essence, you know, from danger of being arrested, but Norris’s skin color, it was also something, how he wanted to be acknowledged a certain way.

[00:17:53] Eddie Robinson: Right? I mean, I think that I read something about, he didn’t necessarily want to be called Black, wanted to be called colored.

[00:17:58] Ryan Lee: Right. What’s going on there? He made that statement in 1977, which was the last year of his life. So, you know, he’s the older gentleman. And I think that just reflects more, just the conservatism of language and things like that.

[00:18:10] Eddie Robinson: Right. As he was dying.

[00:18:11] Ryan Lee: Rather than any aversion to solidarity with Blacks and equivalent for LGBT listeners would be, you know, there are some, you know, older queer folks who don’t call themselves LGBT because, you know, that’s not, you know, they, dah, dah, dah. So it’s, I think it’s that kind of thing. Uh, well, all of them, uh, were like, uh, Norris probably couldn’t pass for white only because of his parents, all of the Black elite in Atlanta during that time was pretty high. Yellow. It’s just a nature of privilege that you speak of and the opportunity and the ease with which the white establishment welcome folks. But it didn’t mean that they were immune to the discrimination.

[00:18:50] Ryan Lee: Adrienne was repeatedly denied roles once it was discovered that she was Black and she wasn’t trying to hide that she was Black, but, you know, folks assumed that she was white and then when she would let them know, no, I’m Black and she was denied acting roles and things like that. So she suffered that during the 1906 race riots, uh, one of Alonzo’s barber, uh, an employee, one of his barbershops was murdered during those riots.

[00:19:12] Ryan Lee: And Norris had to flee to Philadelphia for safety for about a year. So the family certainly felt the implications of being Black. Uh, the reason why I said the Norris didn’t pass is ’cause even as high yellow as it was, and even if he could have passed, his parents had set the tone already that no, were not passes.

[00:19:29] Ryan Lee: Alonzo was deeply committed to the Niagara movement and NAACP and HBCUs and things like that. And so by the time, uh, Norris came along, no matter his how high his complexion

[00:19:41] Eddie Robinson: mm-hmm, ,

[00:19:41] Ryan Lee: um, I think, uh, he understood he was black, grew and grew. And his commitment to the Black community, certainly, uh, despite that throughout throughout his years.

[00:19:51] Eddie Robinson: Sure.

[00:19:53] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with Ryan Lee. He’s the writer of an article penned on the life of Norris Herndon, and it’s on The Reckoning Mag. com described for us. Ryan, this family thrive bank rolling all over the place in a time and an era, you know, where Blacks really, you know, we’re transforming their own world, you know, post slavery becoming a force to be reckoned with Blacks experienced phenomenal wealth and prestige.

[00:20:25] Eddie Robinson: And yet today there’s an element of uncertainty. the aesthetic, right? Uh, the look of portions of the community. You know, where, for instance, Herndon Stadium, it’s now, you know, as what you call it, an urban ruin, you know, a site once cherished during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and even for a number of HBCU Classic football games, it’s now rife with graffiti, you know, overgrown lawn, you know, it’s not very appealing, you know, and even sounds, you know, from your description in your article, you know, the Herndon Home, which I believe was declared a National Historic Landmark back in 2000. You know, it’s surviving gentrification, you know, where it sits right now, but perhaps, you know, there’s uncertainty for the plot of land it rests on, you know, in the upkeep of the mansion itself.

[00:21:17] Eddie Robinson: You know, what’s your take on the fate of, you know, this facility, this mansion, perhaps any other structures with Herndon name attached to it?

[00:21:26] Ryan Lee: Yeah, I think without significant, uh, awareness of the Herndon story, I’m very worried about the fate of the Herndon home. Atlanta is not a city that traditionally have an affinity for history in terms of architecture and things like that.

[00:21:42] Ryan Lee: We’re quick to bulldoze a Black church for a football parking lot, you know, kind of thing. Um, that’s the kind of, uh, attitude that has been predominant throughout the land and development past half century. And so, uh, it’s certainly susceptible to that. You look at Herndon Stadium and with the fate of Herndon Stadium alone is, uh, terrifying because it could still be repurposed into something very beautiful.

[00:22:04] Ryan Lee: It’s a beautiful structure. Beautiful space, you know, that can turn into a youthly, you know, facility or something like that, but it’s just. Empty and idle and you just wonder what is the, you know, play them, you know, we, we can’t let this, you know, just, uh, crumble her new home is about half a block away from that.

[00:22:24] Ryan Lee: And it’s in pristine condition now, you know, it’s a very, uh, nicely contained home, but there is no one there. Monitoring it for weeks on end and it throughout the years. It has been, you know, susceptible to burglaries and break ins and things like that. And right across the street is the former home of Grace Towns Hamilton, which is another Black luminary from back in the day.

[00:22:46] Ryan Lee: And in her home is in rubble, uh, dilapidated and abandoned mansion. And, uh, um, so like that, the Herndon home has been able to be preserved. Uh, thus far is very inspiring. There are all kinds of signs that it takes very little for something that was once, uh, quite a gem to, uh, disintegrate into rubble.

[00:23:13] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson. We’ll speak more with writer Ryan Lee later in the show. But we also wanted to go deeper and learn a bit more about Norris Herndon and connect with one of the first historians who had written about him, Pamela Flores. She, too, is based in Atlanta and was conducting research on the Herndon family while at Georgia State University.

[00:23:38] Eddie Robinson: Pamela, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be a part of I SEE U with Eddie Robinson.

[00:23:44] Pamela Flores: Thank you for the invitation.

[00:23:46] Eddie Robinson: Yeah. Why do you think there is little to hardly any confirmed accounts and information about the Herndon family?

[00:23:53] Pamela Flores: Well, my personal opinion is that certainly it’s not a legacy that at the time, let’s just call the powers that be in the city of Atlanta would have wanted everyone else to be inspired by those sort of ambitions that were achieved by by both of those gentlemen’s and their respective time period at the helm of the company that still exists today.

[00:24:17] Eddie Robinson: And those powers that be do you know if there was any? You know specifically any specific reason as to why they didn’t want this information to be known earlier I mean, I certainly didn’t know anything about Norris Herndon.

[00:24:32] Pamela Flores: I would say it’s pretty much the same situation that we’re in and at the turn of this century, right? We’re already in the second decade of it, but of course this was coming out of Reconstruction, right? So certainly what was achieved by the dad.

[00:24:51] Eddie Robinson: Yeah Alonzo.

[00:24:53] Pamela Flores: During that time period certainly was not something that the white aristocracy right of the city of the town would have wanted more people to be inspired and to do that.

[00:25:04] Pamela Flores: So certainly there were muted in there in their respective ways. So again, it’s just a personal opinion, just on reflecting on what I’m experiencing now in this time period, and then reading firsthand sources of what was happening in that time period, because the Atlanta race riots were 1906. Right? I mean, that was the same time period that that house was getting permitted to be built.

[00:25:32] Pamela Flores: And the house that I’m mentioning is the museum, um, That is their standing legacy, right? That’s the bricks and mortar of their legacy.

[00:25:40] Eddie Robinson: Wow, that’s fascinating. And talk to us about the history of the Herndon home, this immaculate, two story, 15 room mansion that had been built by local Black craftsmen, as I understand it, right?

[00:25:53] Pamela Flores: That’s correct. So the Herndon family moved 1910, and that was Norris, at that age, I guess he would have been maybe about 12 because his mother, his birth mother, you know, she, she passed away when he was 12. And it was like they moved in, had that certificate of occupancy in January and her, I think it’s the wake, I guess it was in April that same year.

[00:26:23] Pamela Flores: So she really didn’t get to fully enjoy the house that she designed herself. It said that from their many trips abroad, that they would go on steamboats, you know, going that way across the Atlantic. That when they were in their expeditions of Europe, that they would come up with these concepts and ideas of how they would design, you know, their massive home.

[00:26:47] Pamela Flores: The detail in what Mr. Herndon decided to do. Even down to the brick, right? Like, there was a local brickman who was a segregationist because this white boy literally used convict ragged convict, quote unquote, labor to fund his his And it’s called, it was called, um, Chattahoochee Brick Company. And the man’s name was James English, who was a mayor, who he would use public policy to lock up and put in chains, literally the chain gang.

[00:27:21] Pamela Flores: People couldn’t pay off their debt. They couldn’t go to jail. But every Friday after they got off their real job, they’d go and sign in to, you know, pay that debt off. So he refused to buy local brick and bought it from a brick house up in Ohio that a Black man owned. And he incorporated that into the exterior of his house.

[00:27:42] Pamela Flores: So, you know, the Black artisans that you talk about, I mean, you should see the woodwork in this home over a hundred years later, immaculate, like the, the precision of, of everything in the home, right? The way that it’s still standing today after little love over the years, you know. Because legacy gets forgotten and it’s literally just sitting there in, let’s just call it a graveyard of another, another historical landmark, right?

[00:28:08] Pamela Flores: The Morris Brown campus. So certainly it’s. It’s a diamond in the rough and it’s crazy because it’s actually called, it’s referenced as Diamond Hill. It’s actually the long, uh, the highest sea level in Atlanta, like the viewpoint from that particular hill is the highest natural elevation in the city of Atlanta boundaries, period.

[00:28:30] Pamela Flores: And the reason why that land was even given over to the bishops of the AME church, they, they were deeded that land supposedly because of where the railroad track was, right? The railroad track right there was confiscated by Union soldiers and the Confederates you know, last the war supposedly, right? So it’s tarnished land, right?

[00:28:51] Pamela Flores: So they said here, we’ll let you bishops have it. You decide to do what you want to do. But again, kind of like going back to the legacy with all of the AUC, right? That there were colorisms even then stipulated into the HBCU schools, right? Spelman, for instance, if you didn’t pass the brown paper bag test, you aren’t going to that school to get educated, to learn to read it, write?

[00:29:14] Pamela Flores: And especially, you know, not, not a woman. So for the way in which the Morris Brown campus, which is where his first wife, the school teacher, Adrienne, right? You know, she would do theater and in, in, in the design of, you know, going back to the question of the house, she literally created a, a theater on the rooftop where they would have plays and fundraisers.

[00:29:36] Pamela Flores: And of course, this was like the, the Black aristocracy of Atlanta. This is where it was happening at. Right. But just, if you go back to the origins of Mr. Herndon senior, it’s like, no one would have fathomed that an eight year old child would walk from. You know, his origins and how those are all the way to what was the capital city following the telegram poll.

[00:30:03] Pamela Flores: You know, and it’s like the picture of his child when I would say, I think there’s a, there’s a famous picture of Norris amongst many, many, many intellectual, it included like DuBois and John Pope and others that it was like the founding of the Niagara movement. Right. Which is now the NAACP. It’s an, it’s an interest in history.

[00:30:24] Pamela Flores: And I would say that the home was so well thought out in every detail that in their historical record. Mrs. Herndon, first wife, right? She literally has receipts of where about in Paris, France she bought the pink silk wallpaper that is the paneling that is in the piano room. Like she left where you can go get the replacement because of how she knew their legacy.

[00:30:55] Pamela Flores: Like she was like her husband, a mulatto woman. She came from Savannah and she like her husband. You know, we’re daughters of women that were in bondage and their daddy was the planter in both cases, you know, so they had that commonality, which is why when they would go to Europe, they could pass.

[00:31:17] Eddie Robinson: Sure.

[00:31:18] Pamela Flores: And be in those spaces and learn, you know,

[00:31:21] Eddie Robinson: because of their skin color.

[00:31:22] Pamela Flores: Correct.

[00:31:27] Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we take a closer look at why many of these properties and housing structures that carry the Herndon name today have been neglected for some time now and what some are calling urban ruin. Are these abandoned areas becoming a hunting ground for real estate opportunists and land grabs? What must be done to preserve the rich histories and legacies of ancestors?

[00:31:52] Eddie Robinson: Are conservancies, local and regional area commissions doing their part? And who’s responsible? For sustaining all of it. We explore those questions and more with our guests, historian, Pamela Flores and writer, Ryan Lee. When I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. Returns in just a moment.

[00:32:20] Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

[00:32:50] Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re exploring the life of a not so well known civil rights activist who died back in 1977, named Norris Herndon, a gay, black financier of the civil rights movement. Earlier, we spoke with writer Ryan Lee. Who penned a recent comprehensive article on him for The Reckoning. com.

[00:33:10] Eddie Robinson: And we’ll circle back to Ryan later this segment. But for now, let’s continue our chat with Pamela Flores. She was one of the first historians to conduct research on Norris Herndon and his family. I SEE U did try to reach out and speak with a representative from the Herndon Foundation based in Atlanta, but we received no response prior to airtime.

[00:33:30] Eddie Robinson: Pamela. As you’ve done your research and examination, you know, perhaps over a decade ago, what has still surprised you the most about what you’ve uncovered and revealed about this family?

[00:33:43] Pamela Flores: You know, I don’t want to seem like I’m saddened by the situation, but when, you know, it’s like I am asked to think about it, it is sad.

[00:33:55] Pamela Flores: That it’s like, hmm, there’s more to the question, right? Because it actually maybe evokes emotion, right? That it’s like, wow, why is it that it’s not talked about, you know? And it’s like, obviously my, my first response to that initial question is because they don’t want anybody to replicate that, obviously that would totally, totally top of the status quo, right? Like ruffle feathers in ways that perhaps, you know, nowadays, most people haven’t been comfortable in doing until recently. So.

[00:34:30] Eddie Robinson: Can you describe for us what really is happening today in 2022 with that, which is associated with the Herndon name as it relates to the stadium.

[00:34:43] Eddie Robinson: It’s upkeep, perhaps a writer, Ryan Lee spoke earlier in this episode and wrote an article about how he’s called it an urban ruin, how the name has been attached to the Herndon homes, the housing project, you know, what’s going on with the politic of what you really think is happening right now in 2022 as relates to the Herndon name.

[00:35:05] Pamela Flores: Well, I do believe that just like in all cases across the country, that it’s a land grab again, right? It’s like, it’s all the land grab. If we look at the definition of the word gentrification, it is not about Black and white. It is about wealth and no wealth. And in that, you know, The African American population seems to look at Atlanta as the Black Mecca, right? It is a place to invest, to go back to, you know, cause obviously there was a time in history that people migrated, you know, during the Langston Hughes era and the roaring twenties and like. We’re talking a hundred years ago. And it’s crazy because you know, history does repeat itself, but certainly it’s like people are going back and going to the city, but they’re contributing to the displacement of people that look like them, you know, sort of with the.

[00:36:09] Pamela Flores: The color green as just being the common denominator in all of it, right? Because there can be things that could have been done. I mean, you can’t tell me that stadium that is, you know, that the Norris Herndon Stadium, like that is literally in the shadow of another stadium. You know, I was there before the stadium.

[00:36:32] Pamela Flores: I’m there, you know, but before the Super Bowl was, was actually played there. So it was like I was there before I was there during and I’m here after and it’s just like, my goodness how can a legacy like that be gone? So, you know, so soon that it’s been eradicated practically from everybody’s memory there locally, a lot of the former residents of that Herndon Homes, the housing project, you know.

[00:37:00] Pamela Flores: They didn’t even know that the namesake per se of what that is all about, like, whose name is that? What did he do? There are schools that have been named after him too, right? But it was like, that was the most notorious one as it relates to recognition with name because it’s not, you know, it didn’t society has not wanted to uplift those legacies that do inspire others to achieve and many have, but because Most lose sight you know, it doesn’t become about the whole concept of what is Sankofa or reaching back and helping others. And, you know, the whole concept of how minute it may seem that Mr. Herndon would go way to where, where is the nearest Black brick house, literally like, like, I’m not going to go and go buy this man’s over here.

[00:37:55] Pamela Flores: I’m going to go way over there. But ironically, that brick actually has like iron deposits in it. So I don’t know if it like, you know, the, the brickyard actually put the deposits into the bricks, but certainly it’s like, he went through that effort to go get that stuff from up and to bring it, to build himself his house and almost like in a position to be like, I will never buy brick from convict labor, James Blackman wrote a book called Slavery By A Different Name, you know, same thing. It’s, it’s, it was depicted so beautifully in the movie Life, but you know, these were actual, like they made specific brick to build these cities and to kind of keep the labor force right where they wanted it, but they were still benefiting from all of what was being built around the city.

[00:38:43] Pamela Flores: Yet again, we would be the burden bearers right. We would continue to be the burden bearers. There’s no way. So Mr. Herndon was like, I will not participate in that.

[00:38:58] Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re speaking with historical scholar, Pamela Flores. She’s been instrumental as one of the early students over at Georgia State to bring attention to the Herndon family’s history. Just curious in your mind, do you think that some family members try to walk that line of wanting or having the desire to protect and preserve the rich family history versus.

[00:39:22] Pamela Flores: Dealing with what everybody already knew? I mean, come on, 1955, Ebony,

[00:39:26] Eddie Robinson: everyone already knew.

[00:39:27] Pamela Flores: Yeah, it was not a secret.

[00:39:30] Pamela Flores: It’s just the time period was not something that was upheld and uplifted.

[00:39:35] Eddie Robinson: Okay. And it’s so ironic that he did. It shut himself off to the public, which in my mind, that’s kind of how that history just stopped. You know, we never really heard anything about Norris Herndon, right? And I think that impacted the story to be told, right?

[00:39:53] Pamela Flores: Surely it had to. But you know, I think that for gentlemen like yourself and Mr. Ryan Lee, right, that explore the topics and tell the story could bring it to light and perhaps, you know, join forces and preserve that history even more. And like continue to make more legacies, right? Cause Atlanta is also, you know, not just the Black Mecca for, uh, entrepreneurship and homeownership just because of, again, the land value of here versus somewhere of North now.

[00:40:30] Pamela Flores: I mean, certainly there is a huge. LGBT community that is African American descent that could latch onto this history, make it one’s own.

[00:40:42] Eddie Robinson: Sure. Sure. And to think that Norris or anyone from that era, you know, what if they would have had a means to communicate or share with like minded stories and narratives with individuals like themselves? Right. I mean, that would have been explosive, but…

[00:40:57] Pamela Flores: No, surely, I mean, the Atlanta university center could become an epicenter. To make sure that people know this story, right? And it’s like that whole mentorship. Yes. I mean, like it can be preserved, but it’s like those that are like minded have to come together to do that.

[00:41:16] Eddie Robinson: There you go. What should this story, the history of Norris Herndon, Pamela, what should this story mean to America? As you take into account all that you’ve unfolded, all that you’ve revealed, all that you’ve discovered about the Herndon legacy, are there any lessons that America needs to learn, you know, from this story, from this history?

[00:41:39] Eddie Robinson: And secondly, maybe, you know, what should Black Americans? Take away from this story. What should the story mean to them?

[00:41:46] Pamela Flores: All Americans could read about the story and learn from the story, right? But at the end of the day, everyone has to do their part. Let’s look back at Mr. Alex Haley and Queen, where it’s like her struggle. Listen to him, Queen.

[00:42:02] From the Mini Series Queen by Alex Haley: It don’t matter. It matters to me. It’s like half of me missing.

[00:42:10] Pamela Flores: Where could she fit the best, right? You know, and obviously that’s from the female’s perspective. But if we talk about just the origins of it all, right? Of why the situations have been, it is because America really doesn’t, it doesn’t like to look at what, what it actually has done right throughout it’s existence.

[00:42:34] Eddie Robinson: Pamela Flores, looking over your life, your career and the history of even the Herndon’s family and their legacy. What lesson have you learned about yourself?

[00:42:46] Pamela Flores: That if I actually want to see something changed, I have to do it myself. I mean, that adage is still very much alive, so I would say that is absolutely it. You have to do it yourself. You can’t expect someone else to do anything.

[00:43:03] Eddie Robinson: She was one of the earlier students at Georgia State to bring attention. To this Herndon family’s history, historical scholar, Pamela Flores. Thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U with Eddie Robinson.

[00:43:15] Pamela Flores: I appreciate the opportunity.

[00:43:18] Pamela Flores: We thank Pamela for her time and insight as it relates to learning more about the Herndon family and more specifically, Norris Herndon.

[00:43:26] Eddie Robinson: In this episode of I SEE U, we continue to understand the notion of bringing attention to this man now, in this day and age especially. As it seemed like his history, his legacy, really for the most part, had been largely unknown.

[00:43:41] Eddie Robinson: And I’m almost sure as to the reason behind the mystique centered mostly around the fact that he was gay. Surely those around him, his family members, close known associates, knew. That he was indeed gay, but it wasn’t made public. We can now highlight this fact and celebrate him and his remarkable story and family even more.

[00:44:02] Eddie Robinson: We wrap up our conversation here at I SEE U with Eddie Robinson, with writer and columnist for the LGBTQ Plus Community’s Georgia Voice publication.

[00:44:12] Eddie Robinson: I’m curious, as you were writing this particular article, do you consider yourself to be an activist? Did you have a sense of sort of like, making sure that you can come away with really confirming the fact that this man was indeed gay?

[00:44:29] Ryan Lee: Yeah, absolutely. Proving that he was gay was part of the thing, but also proving that he was a big deal, you know, in general, because the folks who don’t even know the baseline story, you know, that, you know, his father was a slave who became a millionaire and they, you know, uh, donated money to the founding of the NAACP.

[00:44:46] Ryan Lee: They funded the civil rights movement. There’s telegrams back and forth between he and Martin Luther King and he and Benjamin Mays. And they just always thanking him for his donations in the oral history projects. You know, everyone’s talking about how generous Herndon and Atlanta Life were route, all their activities.

[00:45:03] Ryan Lee: And so people don’t even know that. So there, there was, it was several fold and I, to start with, yes, I, I certainly saw activism in my. Uh, reporting only because I would ask the sources that I was interviewing, like, Hey, what’s it going to take for anybody to do anything about this? And they’re like, well, it takes stories like this, you know, when people, you know, learn.

[00:45:22] Ryan Lee: And so I, I understood that, that my story would be part of that effort to bring attention to and things like that. And so I was very fine with that. And then also I was writing for the publication, the reckoning. And so, you know, we obviously adhere to journalism principles and tenets and things like that, but.

[00:45:39] Ryan Lee: I was writing specifically for Black gay men and, or Black LGBT folks. And I wanted to present them a story that was accurate. You know, I wanted to tell them a fairy tale of this mythical great Black gay man that nobody knows anything about. I’ve known, you know, the seed of the Herndon story for about 15 years.

[00:45:57] Ryan Lee: And I had to, you know, flesh it out within my understanding of, you know, how much did I know was true or how much was it, you know, just word of mouth and everything. And so as I was writing, I did have. There’s about three sections to the story, and I think that, uh, like the first section establishes, beyond a doubt, these people were big deals in Black history, uh, and they played a huge role in the earliest, uh, Black Liberation Movement.

[00:46:24] Ryan Lee: And then the. Uh, mightiest Black Liberation Movement of the sixties. So establishing that back, you know, like when researchers try to, uh, chart the civil power structure of Atlanta, their efforts were complicated by the existence of a black hierarchy, independent of the white hierarchy and Herndon was identified as the head of that Black hierarchy.

[00:46:45] Ryan Lee: And so again, it’s not hyperbole to say what a big deal he was in a Black Atlanta history. And black America history. So I wanted to establish that. And then I also wanted to, I did want to confirm his sexual orientation. It was rewarding to find quotes like the one from Irene Dobbs Jackson calling the sissy, you know, from back in that time to know that other people really did receive him like this.

[00:47:09] Ryan Lee: And then one of the true gems was finding the letter that one of his visitors wrote to her father and some of it’s coy or, you know, like she talks about how she visited him. And. Uh, she met, uh, Mr. Hubert Johnson, who is the, uh, music director of the church and, you know, the music director of Morris Brown.

[00:47:27] Ryan Lee: And, you know, so there’s innuendo there, but it just makes you smile and think like, you know, imagining what type of friendship Norris Herndon and Mr. Johnson had. So, uh, those were some of the aims, again, establishing who’s the big deal for Black folks in general, and then to establish that, you know, uh, Um, we’re pretty confident that he was homosexual and then finally to ask what can be done to protect his story.

[00:47:52] Eddie Robinson: To protect that story and to learn about it, you know, I mean, there is a thin line of wanting or having the desire to protect or preserve the rich family history versus providing a solid open pathway to the public and ensuring that this history is told, you know, and it has to be acknowledged and the full.

[00:48:12] Eddie Robinson: Um, Unadulterated truth must be told. Do you find that there are still perhaps some forces that, you know, still want to really not allow the distraction of his gayness to distract from his accomplishments, the history, the financial role that he played in the Civil Rights Movement. Are there still folks who simply don’t want that part of the story be told?

[00:48:35] Ryan Lee: Uh, I don’t sense that. I think it’s more just a victim of sort of civic laziness in terms of, you know, again, the, uh, the municipal governments have no interest in. Preserving the legacy. HBCUs who benefited so tremendously from the family don’t appear to be doing very much to Champion, the legacy of the Herndon’s LGBT organizations in Atlanta that love to talk about all of the interconnections between LGBT rights and Black Civil Rights and things like that, they have done nothing for the legacy of Norris Herndon. And then I mentioned in the article, even Atlanta’s hip hop moguls who ought to, I really, I, uh, idolize particularly Alonzo’s story of the grit that he had and what he was able to accomplish should be an inspiration to Black entrepreneurs everywhere.

[00:49:24] Ryan Lee: And there’s no effort on them to know the story, you know, kind of thing. So, you know, it’s not necessarily the call that they weren’t told of that story, but again, it’s a citywide failure that nobody’s picked up the ball to quickly. And then the saddest thing is that any Atlantan today that hears Herndon will think of the Herndon homes, which was a housing project.

[00:49:46] Ryan Lee: And which was, uh, you know, it’s just a disgraceful legacy that, that that is the image that is brought to mind by the family’s name.

[00:49:55] Eddie Robinson: As a writer and for you as a person, you know, through this article, after writing about Norris Herndon and learning so much about him and his family. And, you know, I’m wondering if you were able to look within and assess who you are as a person today, what lesson, if any, you know, did you take away your for yourself?

[00:50:15] Ryan Lee: It was an intimate process learning this story and spending time hours and hours reading all kinds of unrelated stuff with the hopes that, you know, you might find, uh, that one thing, but even that unrelated stuff, you know, just get you a little bit closer to him. And like I said, live catty corner to him.

[00:50:31] Ryan Lee: And so I am able to step out my way. Front door and, and just look up to it’s, uh, well, Herndon Home sits on a hill. And so just to look up there and imagine the parties that he might’ve had and things like that. And so, and there was intimacy on that level. And then his devotion to privacy is something that I empathize with to a great degree.

[00:50:51] Ryan Lee: I’m certainly not as much of a recluse as he appears to have been, but I’ve certainly avoided certain social rituals that I did not want to participate in or social goals that I don’t want to aim for and things like that. And I really admired his fidelity to who he was and that he was going to experience this world in a way that brought him comfort and satisfaction regardless of what other people thought he was supposed to be doing.

[00:51:22] Eddie Robinson: Fascinating.

[00:51:24] Eddie Robinson: Writer, columnist, Ryan Lee. Thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.

[00:51:30] Ryan Lee: Thanks for having me, Eddie. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

[00:51:41] Eddie Robinson: Our team includes technical director, Todd Hulslander, producer, Laura Burks, editors, Mark DiClaudio and Jonmitchell Goode. Sound designer, Dave McDermott. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And for more updates and episodes, visit our website. I S E E U show. org. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U. Until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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