The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

From slaves to servant leaders

  • Dr Leon Christopher Prieto, Dr Simone Trixie Allison Phipps and Dr Babita Mathur-Helm
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Insights, Leadership
14 minutes to read


Article written by Dr Leon Christopher Prieto, Dr Simone Trixie Allison Phipps and Dr Babita Mathur-Helm

When the abomination of slavery was brought to an end in the United States of America in the mid-19th century, freed slaves were released into society to make their own way. The contributions of these pioneering men and women in their communities (and beyond) did not receive recognition owing to the legacy of slavery and racism in the USA. This led to African-Americans being excluded from established structures and other aspects of civil life. The total lack of awareness of their plight meant that they were regularly obscured from public consciousness.

Two former slaves, John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon, excelled against all odds to become entrepreneurs who played an important role in the African-American community. While Caucasian role players’ contributions to the business world regularly feature in historic documentation, the pioneers of African descent, who also had an impact on successful businesses and entrepreneurial ventures, received far less recognition. The contributions of John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon beg to be told through the lens of servant leadership.

The contributions of John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon beg to be told through the lens of servant leadership.

Why the servant leadership research angle?
Booker T Washington, an advocate of servant leadership, was Merrick and Herndon’s inspiration to choose the business route and the application they opted for. Washington, born a slave in 1856, became a leading voice of the ex-slaves and their descendants on education issues, career-oriented training, entrepreneurship and employment. His voice was amplified in his book, Negro in Business, which highlighted the entrepreneurial activity among African-Americans and some of the factors that were facilitating economic prosperity among people of colour. Washington encouraged black business owners to serve their communities in order to contribute to the cause of economic progress.

Merrick and Washington were good friends who shared the desire to help African-Americans to achieve success via entrepreneurship and workforce development. Washington’s influence on Herndon became visible in the early 20th century. Herndon was one of the delegates who attended Washington’s founding conference of the National Negro Business League. Herndon vocalised the importance of supporting black businesses and highlighted the opportunities for African-Americans to make money and create job opportunities for the youth.

As a servant leader, Washington guided people to an elevated economic and social standing, allowing them to share in the proverbial economic pie. He understood and served the needs of the black communities and encouraged Merrick and Herndon (as well as many other successful businessmen and businesswomen) to pursue career-oriented education and entrepreneurship as the keys to black economic progress. Following in Washington’s footsteps, Merrick and Herndon became high-profile servant leaders in the African-American community.

Merrick and Herndon became high-profile servant leaders in the African-American community.

About John Merrick
John Merrick was born a slave in North Carolina in 1859. When he was 12, his mother left the plantation in Sampson County and went to Chapel Hill to become a domestic worker. The young Merrick stayed behind to attend the local school. While still at school, he worked at the local brickyard and later became a brick mason. His ambition drove him to leave his construction job to become a shoe shiner in a barbershop. Although it might seem as if he took a step backwards, he knew that being a barber was one of the best professions for young black men at the time, particularly if they wanted to become business owners. So, while shining shoes, he learnt how to cut hair. From these humble beginnings Merrick (and a partner) opened a barber shop in Durham to cater for wealthy white men. This is where he started climbing the ladder of success to become the sole owner of a barber shop, after which he expanded his business interests to five barber shops. He also became a land owner, built houses and rented them out.

His mission was to teach African-Americans how to help themselves and to show them which opportunities existed in the world of finance and entrepreneurship. Merrick rose from nothing to become a wealthy man owning a number barber shops, a real estate investor and an entrepreneur, who cofounded the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.

The way Merrick went about his business embodied the seven dimensions of servant leadership:

  • Bringing about emotional healing
  • Creating value for the community
  • Imparting conceptual skills
  • Empowering others
  • Putting subordinates first to help them grow and succeed
  • Behaving ethically

Merrick rose from nothing to become a wealthy man.

About Alonzo Herndon
Alonzo Herndon was born a slave in Walton County in 1858. He grew up on a farm east of Atlanta. His mother was a slave and his father a white master. When slavery ended, the young Herndon, his mother, younger brother and grandparents were sent away by his father to be free and penniless. From a very young age Herndon worked as a labourer and a pedlar selling peanuts and homemade molasses.

He left home when he was 20 years old and walked to Senoia in Coweta County where he started working as a farmhand. To supplement his meagre income, he began cutting hair on Saturday afternoons in a small place which he rented. He later moved to Atlanta where his top-notch barber skills and reputation quickly spread among the white residents. As his clientele increased, he expanded his business by opening more barber shops, including the most exclusive barber shop in Atlanta (known as the Crystal Palace), which was considered as one of the finest in the USA. Herndon also invested in real estate and became the owner of an extensive real estate portfolio, owning more than 100 houses in the black area of Atlanta, commercial property and a large estate in Florida.

When he purchased Atlanta Life (formerly Atlanta Mutual), it was yet another confirmation that he was fulfilling a servant leader role in the community. Herndon also embraced the seven servant leadership dimensions.

… servant leadership was already practised by black business owners in the early 20th century as a model to create jobs.

Conclusion: Servant leadership existed in the early 20th century
The study reviewed and combined facts and insights from literature sources such as journals, newspapers and other historic documentation. What the study found was that servant leadership was already practised by black business owners in the early 20th century as a model to create jobs and transform communities. Textbooks and other historic records have often omitted the contributions of people of colour to the development of servant leadership principles.

The lives of John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon represent remarkable and real-life ‘rags to riches’ stories. Adhering to Booker T Washington’s leadership and guidance, Merrick and Herndon became servant leaders within their communities. Their businesses created thousands of jobs for African-Americans and empowered them. Business and entrepreneurial pioneers such as John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon left a lasting servant leadership legacy to the world with evidence that it worked a century ago and still works.

Black students with aspirations to use small business ownership and entrepreneurship to escape poverty and contribute to their communities can learn from Merrick, Herndon and other earlier black entrepreneurs. Merrick and Herndon earned the black community’s support because they embraced servant leadership, which contributed to the success of their enterprises.

Their businesses created thousands of jobs for African-Americans and empowered them.

Implications and recommendations
Considering the major value of servant leadership and its worldwide impact, it is recommended that additional research be conducted to explore all the factors that contribute to these constructs. A question to be examined is: How do we increase the number of black businesses that can make a difference to economic and workforce development?

Recommendations to be considered include the following:

  • Implement social entrepreneurial development programmes to equip communities with knowledge, skills and resources to start up small businesses, create jobs and contribute to economic progress.
  • Universities and other institutions should train and develop future agents of change to bring about positive social change in disadvantaged communities.
  • Universities and other institutions should think about preparing and empowering black university students with the skills and resources to make a positive impact on their communities through small business ownership.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures can serve as a platform for students to become servant leaders.
  • Universities can partner with businesses which are interested in providing internships to students geared toward servant leadership.


  • Original article: Prieto, L.C., Phipps, S.T.A & Mathur-Helm, B. 2018. From slaves to servant leaders: Remembering the contributions of John Merrick and Alonzo Herndon. Society and Business Review.
  • Link to article:

Dr Leon Christopher Prieto is from the College of Business, Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia, in the USA and lectures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. His teaching focuses on Human Resources and Organisational Behaviour, Entrepreneurship and other management related topics.
Dr Simone Trixie Allison Phipps is attached to the School of Business, Middle Georgia State University, Macon, Georgia, in the USA. Her research interests include the contributions of minorities to the field of management.
Dr Babita Mathur-Helm lectures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. Her research interests include organisational transformation and development, managing diversity and gender empowerment.

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