2020-01-06 Issue 128 – Fundamental Behavior 1- Do the right thing always
He was smart and hardworking. But as a young black man growing up in Atlanta in the ‘40’s, Herman Russell could not rely on the kindness of others, or even luck, to make a better life. Opportunities were few and far between. He shined shoes as a child, and then worked construction with his father. Herman was a saver and a doer, and, at 16, he bought his first piece of property, a shotgun lot in Atlanta.
Over the ensuing two years, he slowly built what would be his first rental property, a duplex. He built it by himself and with friends and purchased materials as he could afford them. One Saturday, as the house was nearing completion, Herman noticed a man standing in front of the house admiring the work. Herman went out to see the man. “Do you know who the owner of this house is?” asked the man. “Yes sir, I do. This is my house. I built it myself,” Herman responded. “Well,” the man said after a few seconds, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that it might be your house, but you built it on my land.” Unfortunately, a review of the deeds showed that the man was right, Herman had made a mistake. He built the house on the wrong lot. Russell’s lot was actually next door.
The man had every right to take possession of the house Russell built on his land. Instead, the man agreed to swap lots, allowing Herman to enjoy the benefits of his rental property. Herman Russell went on to become one of the most successful builders in the Southeast, and easily the most important African-American business person in Atlanta from the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s. More importantly, Russell was a close friend and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the civil rights movement. He served as critical bridge between the white establishment of Atlanta and the leaders of the movement. Russell also provided critical financial support to Dr. King that permitted Dr. King to continue his mission. It has been said that if there was no Herman Russell, then there would be no Dr. King.
I keep going back to the unnamed man in Herman Russell’s autobiography who did the right thing by trading lots with the young Russell. Russell himself admits that if that man had not made that offer, then Russell would have been financially ruined, and maybe even morally defeated beyond recovery. Extend the hand, show the respect, take the responsibility, make the fair deal. You will not know the impact of that small gesture, but you will have an impact.
YKK Corporation of America