Arthur George (A.G.) Gaston rose from poverty in the Deep South to a fortune worth well over $130 million by the year he died. He also left behind a business empire that spanned real estate, insurance, and communications, according to the book about his life entitled “Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire.”
The grandson of slaves, he overcame the unfavorable business climate for Blacks to become an influential businessman and later a supporter of the civil rights movement. Growing up in Demopolis, Alabama, where he was born in 1892 in a log cabin, Gaston’s first business was selling rides on a tree swing in his grandparent’s backyard, as pointed out by historian Suzanne Smith. “His friends would bring buttons,” Smith told NPR.
Later, Gaston moved to Birmingham with his mother, where he attended the Tuggle Institute for Black children. In 1910, he joined the army and served overseas in France during the first world war. When he returned to Alabama after the war, he drove a delivery truck for a dry-cleaning company and worked as a miner for Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in Fairfield, Alabama.
It was while there that his entrepreneurial career really began. He started off by selling homemade sandwiches to his fellow mine workers at lunchtime. He saved enough from this business and started lending money to his co-workers at the rate of 25 percent interest.
“While he’s on the job, he notices that one of the biggest needs in the black community is a fine funeral when you die,” Smith said.
By 1923, he had founded his first business, the Booker T. Washington Burial Society. Encyclopediaofalabama.org writes: “In its early years, the society worked much like a fraternal order, with members paying weekly fees of $0.25 that entitled them to burial services upon their death. This business thrived as a result of Gaston’s ability to form a coalition with area black ministers, who steered members of their congregations to the society. He also attracted customers by sponsoring gospel singers and Alabama’s first radio program aimed at African Americans.”
In the late 1930s, he opened an insurance company and funeral home across from Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. The success of his insurance company led him to open the Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association, the only Black-owned financial institution in Birmingham in the early 1950s. He subsequently opened the A.G. Gaston Motel in 1954 not far from his other businesses to welcome Blacks denied services at other hotels due to segregation.
By the middle of the 20th century, Gaston was a multimillionaire, running his insurance company and funeral home, his savings and loan, his own motel as well as a business college. Some accounts state that he was probably the richest Black man in America in the 1960s, employing the largest number of African Americans in Alabama.
The civil rights movement
Gaston did not always agree with the movement’s way of doing things but he supported it financially, mostly behind the scenes. In the 1950s, he was able to have the “whites only” signs removed from the water fountains in the First National Bank after privately threatening to close his account with the bank.
He provided a job to Autherine Lucy in 1956 that enabled her to get financial support to become the first Black student to register at the University of Alabama. That same year, he gave out one of his offices to Birmingham civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who had founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and was in search of a place to hold its first meeting. Gaston also supported Tuskegee activists evicted from their homes for challenging voting discrimination and he further offered his lodge to civil rights activists to plan their campaigns.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested during the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations, Gaston bailed him out for $160,000. Gaston had earlier attempted to warn King of what the results of the protest could be. “They were in the Gaston motel, and A.G. Gaston turned to King and said: ‘Don’t go out and break that injunction against marching. I don’t want you to get arrested,’ ” Smith said.
Because he was against the radical tactics adopted by most members of the civil rights movement, he was called “Uncle Tom”.
“He said that if wanting to spare children and save lives, bring peace, was Uncle Tom-ism, then I wanted to be a Super Uncle Tom,” Smith said. “He understood that there was a way that the black community could empower itself economically. But it involved a lot of careful maneuvering with the white power structure in the city,” Smith added.
Receiving many accolades and honors in his last years, Gaston passed away on January 19, 1996, at age 103. He left behind his insurance company (the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company), the A.G. Gaston Construction Company, CFS Bancshares — the nation’s second-largest Black-owned bank — and the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club, according to BlackPast.
The book Black Titan says “he was a man who had proved it was possible to overcome staggering odds and make a place for himself as a leader, a captain of industry, and a far-sighted philanthropist.”