Herman J. Russell, the founder of two Atlanta-based companies — H.J. Russell & Company and Concessions International LLC. — has been treasured for his role in helping build the Atlanta skyline as we see it today as well as for shaping the airport dining experience for travelers throughout the country and the US Virgin Islands since 1952 and 1979 respectively. 

“Building Atlanta: The Story of Herman J. Russell,” a new documentary about the inspiring life and legacy of this Atlanta businessman and founder of one of the country’s largest black-owned commercial real estate development and construction firms, will premiere on ATL PBA (WPBA-TV) this Sunday, Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. and will re-air on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.

“For our family, having our father’s and grandfather’s story told through the eyes and words of those who knew him best is a particularly impactful approach the filmmakers used,” said Russell’s son, Michael B. Russell, who serves as the current CEO of H. J. Russell & Company. 

“As humble as he was, I think he would enjoy seeing what his friends had to say about him in addition to seeing his life story on television,” the younger Russell said about his father. “He would hope this documentary will inspire people, particularly young people, to strive even harder to reach their personal potential against all odds, and that’s what we hope it does too.”

“Building Atlanta: The Story of Herman J. Russell” is airing exclusively on ATL PBA, which will share the film with school systems and other public broadcasting outlets as part of its education outreach initiatives. After its second airing on ATL PBA on Feb. 23, the full documentary will be uploaded to H. J. Russell & Company’s YouTube channel and eventually to pba.org.

“We are deeply honored to be the platform on which people in Atlanta and beyond will learn more about the man, Mr. Herman J. Russell, who truly helped inspire and shape not only Atlanta’s skyline but also an integrated, partnering workforce,” said Wonya Lucas, the president and CEO of ATL PBA. “For those familiar with his legacy, and for those who are not, we encourage you to tune in to learn more about a person who defied many odds to achieve his dreams and inspired a city, a state and a country in many different ways.”

The nearly hour-long film took more than a year to produce and features interviews with nearly 40 notable Atlantans who knew Russell well. Throughout the documentary, the voices of Russell’s proteges are heard, along with business partners who witnessed his life unfold with first-hand perspective. 

For example, Robert “Bob” Holder, founder and chairman of Holder Construction, said, “Herman and I were born within a month of each other, and within three miles of each other, but the two worlds could not have been more different. Everything I was born into was designed to make sure I succeeded; everything he was born into was designed to be sure he did not succeed. And Herman, in his lifetime, overcame all of that.”

Even though H. J. Russell & Company has become one of the largest minority-owned construction services and real estate development firms in the US, Russell’s own beginnings were humble. The Great Depression was a challenging time for most Americans, but particularly for the young African-American boy who was born in 1930 in the segregated South. 

As early as the age of 8, Russell was inspired to build and own real estate — he wanted to be his own employer. Through watching his father run his own plastering business and feeling the urgency and necessity to create jobs during the hard economic times, his entrepreneurial spirit was born and lasted throughout his life until his death in 2014.

“Building Atlanta: The Story of Herman J. Russell” was produced, written, edited and directed, in coordination with the Russell family and for PBA by Emmy Award-winning father and son team, David and John Duke of Living Stories Film & Video.

“John and I met (Russell) in his later years when we interviewed him for our documentary on former City of Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen,” Duke explained. “Of (Russell’s) many qualities, the one that stood out the most was his warmth. 

“As we worked on Russell’s own story, we quickly saw that he built more than buildings: The relationships he formed with Atlanta’s white business community became lasting friendships,” Duke added. “The trust and confidence he inspired enabled a new generation of Black entrepreneurs to move into the mainstream. (Russell) not only left his mark on the skyline of his home town; he helped to make real the legacy of a city too busy to hate.”

“Our family felt it was important to document the legacy of our family patriarch in film for generations to enjoy and be inspired by, as we were all of our lives,” said Russell’s daughter, Donata Russell Ross, who serves as the CEO of Concessions International LLC. “We’ve always been proud of our father’s accomplishments, but to see his life illustrated so beautifully in this film is so rewarding for our entire family. We are grateful ATL PBA was supportive and interested in sharing his story with a larger audience.”

As a lasting legacy to Russell, the Russell family has created the Russell Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, designed to encourage and support generations of entrepreneurs, especially Black entrepreneurs, as he did throughout his life. 

“The documentary is the inspirational back story on which the Russell Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (RCIE) is being created,” said Herman J. Russell’s son and namesake, H. Jerome Russell, Jr., who serves as chairman of the board for RCIE. “We want current and aspiring entrepreneurs to come to RCIE to reach their potential as entrepreneurs, and this film will help our members understand the legacy and foundation on which RCIE is built.”

Herman J. Russell, the founder of H. J. Russell & Company, is being honored with a new documentary featuring testimonials from prominent Atlantans who knew him best. (Photo: H. J. Russell & Company)

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