A. G. Gaston

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Arthur George Gaston (Demopolis, Alabama, July 4, 1892 – Birmingham, Alabama, January 19, 1996) was an American businessman who established a number of businesses in Birmingham, Alabama, and who played a significant role in the movement to remove legal barriers to integration in Birmingham in 1963. In his lifetime, Gaston's companies were some of the most prominent African-American businesses in the American South.

Early life[edit]

The grandson of an enslaved person,[1] A. G. Gaston was born July 4, 1892, in Demopolis, Alabama, to Tom and Rosa McDonald Gaston.[2][3] Gaston's father died while he was still an infant.[4] He grew up in a log cabin with his mother and grandparents, Joe and Idella Gaston.[2] He moved to Birmingham in 1905 with the Loveman family, who employed his mother as a cook.[2]

Gaston's formal education ended with the 10th grade. After earning his certificate from the Tuggle Institute[4] (which only went through the 10th grade),[5] he served in the army in France during World War I and then went to work in the mines run by Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company in Fairfield, Alabama.[4]

Business growth[edit]

While working in the mines, he hit on the plan of selling lunches to his fellow miners and then branched into loaning money to them at 25 percent interest.[6] It was also while working in the mines that he conceived of the idea of offering burial insurance to co-workers.[7] He had noticed that mine widows would come to the mines and to local churches to collect donations in order to bury their husbands and he wondered if people would "give a few dimes into a burial society to bury their dead".[1] As a result, Gaston formed the Booker T. Washington Burial Insurance Company in 1923, which became the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company in 1932.[4][8]

In 1938 Gaston bought and renovated a property on the edge of Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham, where, in partnership with his father-in-law, A. L. Smith, he started Smith & Gaston Funeral Home.[8] Smith & Gaston sponsored gospel music programs on local radio stations and launched a quartet of its own.[8][9]

Realizing that there were not enough blacks with sufficient training to be able to work in the insurance and funeral industries, in 1939 he and his second wife, Minnie L. Gardner Gaston, established the Booker T. Washington business school.[10][6] (His first wife, Creola Smith Gaston, died in 1938.) Other Gaston enterprises included Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association, the first black-owned financial institution in Birmingham in more than forty years.[11][12] On July 1, 1954, Gaston opened the A.G. Gaston Motel on a site adjoining Kelly Ingram park.[6][13]

Political activities[edit]

Gaston kept a low political profile through most of the 1940s and 1950s. Although Gaston was reluctant to confront white authorities and the white business establishment directly, he supported the civil rights movement financially. He offered financial support to Autherine Lucy,[6] who had sued to integrate the University of Alabama, and had provided financial assistance to residents of Tuskegee who faced foreclosure because of their role in a boycott of white-owned businesses called to protest their disenfranchisement.[14] When Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader in Birmingham, founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in the wake of the outlawing of the NAACP in the State of Alabama in 1956, the group held its first meeting at Smith & Gaston's offices.[8]

When students at Miles College, a historically black college in Fairfield, attempted to use sit-in and boycott tactics to desegregate downtown Birmingham in 1962, Gaston used his position as a member of the board of trustees of the institution to dissuade them from continuing their campaign while he pursued negotiations with them. Those negotiations produced some token changes, but no significant progress toward desegregating the stores or hiring black employees.[2]

External video
video icon “Eyes on the Prize; Interview with A.G. Gaston” conducted in 1985 for the Eyes on the Prize documentary in which he discusses the Birmingham campaign of 1963, financially supporting civil rights activists, and his efforts to reach a negotiated settlement between civil rights activists and the city government, including Bull Connor.

When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), represented locally by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, proposed to support those students' demands in 1963 by widespread demonstrations,[15] challenging both Birmingham's segregation laws and Local Police Commissioner Bull Connor's authority,[16] Gaston opposed the plan and tried to deflect the campaign from public confrontation into negotiations with white business leaders.[17] Gaston posted $5000 bail for Dr. Martin Luther King and Reverend Abernathy when they were arrested.[18]

At the same time, Gaston provided King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy with a room at his motel[6] at a discount and free meeting rooms at his offices nearby throughout the campaign. He maintained a public show of support for the campaign and not only took part in the meetings with local business leaders, but insisted that Shuttlesworth be brought in since "he's the man with the marbles".[19]

That unity nearly dissolved, however, after Rev. Ralph Abernathy made some comments about unidentified Uncle Toms[20] and Dr. King made a call for unity on April 9, 1963, that made it clear that he would press forward with his plans for confrontation. Gaston issued a press release in response in which he obliquely criticized King by lamenting the lack of communication between white business leaders and "local colored leadership".

That press release exposed a significant rift between the activists in the Civil Rights Movement. Hosea Williams described Gaston as a "super Uncle Tom" to the press[19] while complaining that he overcharged for his motel rooms—despite the fact that Williams, and other civil rights leaders were staying at Gaston's motel free of charge.[21] The leaders of the movement were eager, however, to avoid any public airing of those differences; Shuttlesworth soon apologized, SCLC leaders treated the press release as an expression of support for their campaign while Dr. King announced creation of a special committee of local leaders, including Gaston, to meet every morning to approve each day's plans.

That committee had no real power, however, as became clear when the movement encouraged school children to march against segregation on May 2, 1963. Gaston protested the strategy, telling King: "Let those kids stay in school. They don't know nothing." King replied, "Brother Gaston, let those people go into the streets where they'll learn something." The demonstrations continued.[22]

Violence against Gaston[edit]

Because of his stance as a negotiator, Gaston often faced challenges by proponents from both sides of the civil rights issue.[23]

Gaston remained disaffected from Dr. King, urging him to stay away, in a statement released in September 1963, after Dr. King announced plans to return to Birmingham to resume demonstrations.[24]

On May 11, 1963, four people probably associated with the KKK attempted to blow up the part of the A.G. Gaston Motel where King and Abernathy were staying; the home of Martin Luther King's brother Reverend A. D. King was also bombed. Later that night, the bombings sparked riots by African Americans in the community in a 28-block section of Birmingham. The local police officers and state troopers responded to the crisis and subsequently beat rioters and bystanders. More than fifty people were injured as police were dispatched to clear Kelly Ingram Park.[25]

On September 8, 1963, unidentified persons threw firebombs at Gaston's house, a day after he and his wife had attended a state dinner at the White House with President John F. Kennedy.[26]

On the night of January 24, 1976, Gaston and his wife were kidnapped and beaten by an intruder, and Gaston was abducted in his own car; police officers found him two hours later, bound in the back seat of the car.[citation needed][27][11]

Death and legacy[edit]

Gaston published a memoir in 1968, coinciding with the founding of the A. G. Gaston Boys club.[12]

Gaston famously said, "I never went into anything with the idea of making money…I thought of doing something, and it would come up and make money. I never thought of trying to get rich”.[11]

Gaston died January 19, 1996, at the age of 103.[18]

He left behind an insurance company, the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company; a construction firm, the A.G. Gaston Construction Company, Smith and Gaston Funeral Home, and a financial institution, CFS Bancshares. The City of Birmingham owns the motel, which it plans to make into an annex to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, built on the former site of the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company. His net worth was estimated to be more than $130,000,000 at the time of his death.[28]

In 2017 President Barack Obama designated the A.G. Gaston Motel the center of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.[27]


  1. ^ a b Marshall, David (July 1976). "A. G. Gaston: The Story of a Poor Boy From Demopolis Who Became One of the South's Leading Entrepreneurs". Black Enterprise: p. 31.
  2. ^ a b c d Carol Jenkins; Elizabeth Gardner Hines (2005). Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. Random House Publishing Group. pp. 284–. ISBN 978-0-345-45348-8.
  3. ^ Jessie Carney Smith (2006). Encyclopedia of African American Business. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 336–. ISBN 978-0-313-33110-7.
  4. ^ a b c d Marybeth Gasman; Katherine V. Sedgwick (2005). Uplifting a People: African American Philanthropy and Education. Peter Lang. pp. 122–. ISBN 978-0-8204-7474-8.
  5. ^ Marshall (July 1976), p. 32.
  6. ^ a b c d e Marie A. Sutton (November 4, 2014). The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark. Arcadia Publishing Incorporated. pp. 116–. ISBN 978-1-62585-132-1.
  7. ^ Ebony. Johnson Pub.Company. May 1975.
  8. ^ a b c d Suzanne E. Smith (June 1, 2010). To Serve the Living. Harvard University Press. pp. 144–. ISBN 978-0-674-05464-6.
  9. ^ Cedric J. Hayes; Robert Laughton (1992). Gospel records, 1943-1969: a Black music discography. Record Information Services. ISBN 978-0-907872-29-0.
  10. ^ Johnson Publishing Company (November 1975). Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. pp. 56–. ISSN 0012-9011.
  11. ^ a b c Earl G. Graves, Ltd. (June 1997). Black Enterprise. Earl G. Graves, Ltd. pp. 118–. ISSN 0006-4165.
  12. ^ a b Johnson Publishing Company (July 27, 1992). Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. pp. 12–. ISSN 0021-5996.
  13. ^ Dell Upton (November 24, 2015). What Can and Can't Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South. Yale University Press. pp. 173–. ISBN 978-0-300-21661-5.
  14. ^ Time-Life Books (May 1999). Leadership: Voice of Triumph. Time-Life, Incorporated. ISBN 978-0-7835-4915-6.
  15. ^ Adam Fairclough (2001). To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. University of Georgia Press. pp. 268–. ISBN 978-0-8203-2346-6.
  16. ^ James A Colaiaco (July 27, 2016). Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence. Springer. pp. 57–. ISBN 978-1-349-08223-0.
  17. ^ Thomas F. Jackson (July 17, 2013). From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 158–. ISBN 0-8122-0000-4.
  18. ^ a b Stout, David. "A. G. Gaston, 103, a Champion Of Black Economic Advances". The New York Times. Retrieved January 14, 2017.
  19. ^ a b Diane McWhorter (June 29, 2001). Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-2648-6.
  20. ^ J. Mills Thornton (September 25, 2002). Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. University of Alabama Press. pp. 299–. ISBN 978-0-8173-1170-4.
  21. ^ Johnson Publishing Company (June 1987). Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. pp. 56–. ISSN 0012-9011.
  22. ^ Robert H. Mayer (2008). When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Enslow Publishers, Inc. pp. 74–. ISBN 978-0-7660-2930-9.
  23. ^ "A. G. Gaston". Encyclopedia of Alabama. Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  24. ^ Gary Younge (August 20, 2013). The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream. Haymarket Books. pp. 29–. ISBN 978-1-60846-356-5.
  25. ^ WSB-TV (Television station: Atlanta, GA.) (May 11, 1963). "WSB-TV newsfilm clip of the bombed ruins of the A.G. Gaston Motel and law enforcement patrolling the streets..." Civil Rights Digital Library. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
  26. ^ Glenn T. Eskew (November 9, 2000). But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 427–. ISBN 978-0-8078-6132-5.
  27. ^ a b Schuessler, Jennifer. "President Obama Designates First National Monument Dedicated to Reconstruction". The New York Times. Retrieved January 14, 2017.
  28. ^ Carol Jenkins, "Arthur G. Gaston: A Titan’s First Step", Black Enterprise February 10, 2009.


  • Gaston, A. G. (1968), Green Power: The Successful Way of A. G. Gaston. Birmingham: Southern University Press
  • Carol, Jenkins; Elizabeth Gardner Hines (December 2003). Black Titan, A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. New York: One World/Ballantine. ISBN 0-345-45347-6.
  • Bailey, Richard, They Too Call Alabama Home By Pyramid Publishing. ISBN 0-9671883-0-X
  • Interview with A. G. Gaston from Eyes on the Prize.
  • Marshall, David (July 1976). "A. G. Gaston: The Story of a Poor Boy From Demopolis Who Became One of the South's Leading Entrepreneurs". Black Enterprise: pp. 31–33.
  • Chenrow, Fred; Carol Chenrow (1973). Reading Exercises in Black History, Volume 1. Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, Inc. p. 30. ISBN 08454-2107-7.