Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed calls Herman J. Russell “one of the most extraordinary citizens our city has ever produced.” Mayor Reed and wife Sarah-Elizabeth attended the funeral services for Russell on Saturday, November 21, 2014, at the Saint Philip A.M.E. Church on Candler Road in Atlanta. The church was filled with many who came to say a final goodbye to the man credited with having done so much for the city and for the State of Georgia. Mayor Reed saying, “He was an essential part of a movement that changed Atlanta. He was that quiet partner for Dr. Martin Luther King, Ambassador Andrew Young, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, and so many others.” Reed adding, “He really was that quiet force that allowed so much extraordinary change in the city to occur.”
Russell’s widow Sylvia was joined by family, friends, business partners present and past in saying ‘goodbye’ to the longtime Atlanta businessman and philanthropist.
The Eulogy was delivered by Vernon Jordan. The attorney and presidential advisor is also a product of Atlanta. He told me that he and Russell met, “in 1948 at David T. Howard High School.” Jordan adding, “One of the best things in my life was my friendship with Herman.” During the service, Jordan recalled how, after being shot and seriously wounded, he awoke to find his friend HJ standing in his hospital room. “All the way in Fort Wayne, Indiana”, he said.
Jordan said that his friend “was not merely someone who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and then walked away. Herman’s special gift was that he brought this community, this city, this country along with him. Herman Russell, I declare today, was a builder.”
Russell’s 30-page Obituary Celebration of Life was filled with letters of condolence along with quotes and tributes. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, calls Russell “a phenomenal man whose legacy and impact on the city of Atlanta will live on in perpetuity.” The youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, says “my father and my mother regarded him as a dear friend and an important supporter of our freedom struggle, who often provided bail money and other support during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Congressman John Lewis called it fitting and proper for so many people to pay tribute to such an unbelievable man. Lewis told me, “He’s a pillar of Atlanta, a pillar of the State of Georgia. He made a lasting contribution. He helped so many people.”
Congressman Hank Johnson called Russell, “an old-school family man with old-school values. Hard work, self-reliance, self-discipline and honesty based on strong faith were his hallmarks.”
Johnson went on to say that Russell, “Shattering racial barriers while charitably contributing to the greater society, Herman Russell leaves a lasting legacy of service and success.”
DeKalb State Representative Ernest “Coach” Williams calls Russell’s death “a terrible loss” saying that Russell was “a builder of people”. State Representative Calvin Smyre says that he’d known Herman Russell for more than 40 years. “I got a chance to meet him when I first got elected to the state legislature. He has been a bridge builder and one who has given so much and helped so many. He’s just been a great mentor and a great friend.” Atlanta Police Chief George Turner called Russell “a classic and classy man whose family will continue to be a legacy for our entire community “.
During the program grandchildren Herman “Russ” Russell, III, Zane Major, Jr., Sydney Russell, and Michael Russell, Jr. provided fond memories of their grandfather. Children Donata Major, H. Jerome Russell, Jr., and Michael Russell did the same.
In delivering the Benediction, Ambassador Andrew Young said of his friend, “If there was anything that he stood for, it was work, and he wanted everyone around him to be working on something. You will always hear his demand for excellence.” In addressing the Russell family, Young said, “Love never ends. You cannot bury Herman’s laughter in that casket. You can’t put an end to his smile in your life, and in your heart you will remember his jokes, you will remember his hugs, you will remember his wisdom, you will remember his vision, his encouragement, and the courage that he had that he forced upon you, and he will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Obituary: Herman Jerome “HJ Russell, Sr., son of Maggie Goodson Russell and Rogers Russell, Sr., was born December 23, 1930. He was the youngest of eight children in the Summerhill Community of Atlanta, Georgia, a short distance from present-day Turner Field. In 1952, while still a senior at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, HJ established the business that would be known as H.J. Russell & Co. As the company continued to grow and prosper through the 1960s, HJ’s civic involvement brought him into lasting relationships with many of Atlanta’s prominent politicians, business leaders and Civil Rights activists including former Atlanta mayor, Ivan Allen, Jr.; former Georgia senator, Leroy Johnson; political activist, QV Williamson; and renowned Atlanta businessman, Jesse Hill, Jr. HJ was the first black member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and later became the organization’s second black president.
In 1973, HJ Russell co-chaired the finance committee to elect Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s first black mayor, whose political and business practices were instrumental in bringing about economic equity to Atlanta’s growing population of African-Americans.
HJ retired from H.J. Russell & Company in 2003, but continued to devote his energies to his legacy projects in the Castleberry Hill area, which included Paschal’s Restaurant.
In 2006, Otelia, his wife of 50 years died. Later, HJ married Sylvia, then President of AT&T Georgia.
HJ Russell is survived by his wife, Sylvia; daughter, Donata Russell Major; sons H. Jerome (Stephanie) and Michael (Lovette); stepsons Eric and Kevin Anderson; eight grandchildren, Herman “Russ” Russell, III, Zane Major, Jr., Sydney Russell, Emanuel “Manny” Major, Mori Russell, Michael Russell, Jr., Benjamin Russell, Kelsey Russell, and a host of other relatives and friends.