A.G. Gaston: Black Businessman and Civil Rights Icon
Gaston envisioned a world in which black Americans were sovereign, morally free, and equal.
Arthur George (A. G.) Gaston was born on July 4, 1892, in Demopolis, Alabama. Shortly after Gaston’s birth, he was sent off to be raised by his grandmother. His father had passed away and his mother worked as a family cook for A.B. Loveman, a wealthy Jewish businessman and Hungarian immigrant. Loveman, who founded the state’s largest department store, gave the young Gaston a vicarious taste of what business success looked like.
In 1923, the genesis of Gaston’s own journey as a black businessman and investor began when he launched the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. with a mere $500 to his name. From this bedrock, Gaston would build a business empire that included a funeral home, motel, savings and loan bank, business college, construction company, real estate business, and two radio stations. Over time his fortune grew to an estimated $30 million.1
The success of Gaston’s funeral home business was particularly notable given the barriers to black entrepreneurship during the Jim Crow era. Gaston’s vision was fueled by his profound disappointment in witnessing black families facing the prospect of not being able to bury a loved one because of a lack of funds and a lack of access to white‐owned funeral parlors. Those who had lost someone were often forced to beg for funds to pay for a proper funeral. Recognizing the need, Gaston launched the Booker T. Washington Burial Society, named after his personal hero. Demonstrating his enterprising spirit, Gaston often went door‐to‐door himself to solicit funds for the cause.
Gaston built his businesses in the immediate aftermath of the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot of 1921, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. Centered in Tulsa’s Greenwood District—an economically thriving African‐American community affectionately known as “Black Wall Street”—a massacre occurred when white vigilantes, foiled in their attempt at lynching a young black man, attacked black neighborhoods, destroyed their prosperous businesses, and murdered more than one hundred residents.2
Gaston would confront a series of similar challenges in Birmingham, Alabama, a hotbed of racial tension later nicknamed “Bombingham” because of the many bombings committed by white supremacists. Nevertheless, Gaston used his wealth and influence to provide amenities that would have otherwise been denied to black residents. For example, area hotel accommodations were often available only to whites. As a result, Gaston frequently hosted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr who, whenever visiting Birmingham, stayed at the Gaston Motel, the city’s only first‐class accommodation that accepted blacks.3
Gaston took a thoughtful and deliberate approach to black‐white relations, using his wealth and social standing with white city leaders to arbitrate when disputes arose. He had a reputation for being a savvy negotiator and deal maker who exerted a heavy hand only if absolutely necessary.
Black Titan, a book chronicling Gaston’s life, highlights the delicate line he had to walk between white business leaders on one side and the interests of the black community in gaining full civil equality. According to historian Barbara Ransby, black involvement in the civil rights movement fell into one of two distinct categories: “There were the deal‐makers, who bargained for incremental change, and then there were troublemakers, who raised a ruckus.” Placing Gaston in his proper place along this continuum is not a challenge. Gaston believed in incremental change; he was, unabashedly, a deal maker.
But if accommodationist he was, he was at least an equal opportunity accommodationist. He believed in negotiations, not demands, no matter who he was negotiating with. In the period just before the street protests of 1963, Gaston was an intrinsic part of Birmingham life as the most successful and well‐connected black businessman in the city.4He used that influence to support the civil rights movement, albeit not always at the pace or in the way that other activists prefered.
Many staunch advocates of the civil rights movement found Gaston’s partial support frustrating, but he was sincere in his desire to achieve racial equality and he repeatedly proved his willingness to sacrifice for the cause. For example, Gaston initially had reservations about supporting Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham Campaign, instead wanting to give newly elected Mayor Albert Boutwell the opportunity to follow through with some promised reforms. But once King’s efforts were met by violent pushback from the city’s Commissioner for Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, Gaston relented, bailing the civil rights leader out of jail and offering his support moving forward. And Gaston would pay a heavy price for supporting King when first his motel and then his house were bombed.5
Gaston’s personal philosophy was heavily influenced by that of Booker T. Washington, an intellectual debt he acknowledged through the name of his first company. Washington’s approach to securing racial equality focused on achieving black equality through long‐term economic advancement rather than by directly confronting legal segregation. This was in contrast with the more assertive approach of civil rights organizations like the NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Indeed, the first book that Gaston ever owned was Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery. His favorite passage of that book stated:
“[E]very persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is in the long run recognized and rewarded…. [T]he Negro … should make himself, through skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence” (qtd. on p. 41).
Even though Gaston may have preferred Washington’s indirect approach, Gaston could take a more direct approach when necessary. For example, following the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which resulted in the deaths of four young African American girls, Gaston and King met with President John F. Kennedy to broker a roadmap for addressing racial tensions in Birmingham. This groundbreaking meeting led to a series of federally overseen negotiations between the white and black communities in Birmingham. Gaston played a pivotal role in this local effort until his death in January of 1996 at the age of 103.6
Gaston was one of the wealthiest black men in America during his life, with a fortune estimated at between $30 million to $40 million, a trailblazing achievement in the face of such staggering barriers. But perhaps his biggest legacy was his track record in building up a network of successful African‐American owned businesses across the South.7
However, Gaston’s pioneering role as an accelerant of black prosperity and economic freedom has garnered scant acknowledgment over the years, tarnished in the minds of some by his conciliatory approach in the face of deep atrocities committed against blacks during the Jim Crow era.
Gaston viewed the evolution of the civil rights movement as an organic process, one where events were allowed to naturally take shape. This yielding, modest philosophy often placed Gaston at odds with the more aggressive stance of other prominent civil rights leaders. Gaston’s dominant belief was that the black community could acheive equality through self‐initiative and economic uplift, a testament to Booker T. Washington’s influence on his thinking. Gaston recognized that opening doors required a great deal of thoughtful negotiation with the city’s powerful white political structure to remove barriers that restricted black economic advancement.
This incrementalist approach, which emphasized industrial education and political accommodation, was often scrutinized by other prominent black leaders, notably W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed in a more radical, protest‐oriented pursuit of civil rights. Gaston, like Washington, believed that the path forward involved acknowledging the short‐term realities of discrimination while building a stable economic foundation that could in the long term allow black communities to transcend Jim Crow era racism.
Du Bois’s views ran counter to this more accommodationist stance, believing that it reflected tacit approval of Jim Crow regime and the ugly stain of racism. He and a cadre of other black leaders formed the Niagara Movement, a civil‐rights organization aimed at achieving full equality for black Americans. While this movement gained little traction early on, it fueled the rise of the iconic organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
While both the Washingtonian and DuBoisian views ultimately proved critical for the civil rights victories of the ’50s and 60s, there were limits to each approach. Washington’s approach seemed passive in the face of violent suppression of black entrepreneurs and civil rights activists by both vigilante groups and the State itself. On the other hand, the more forceful stance favored by Du Bois and his disciples inflamed white backlash, the costs of which fell on local people like Gaston when outside activists packed up and moved onto the next flashpoint. Gaston appears to have recognized at times the need to combined both approaches. For while accommodationist in nature, he also demonstrated in Birmingham a willingness to pivot and support confrontation when necessary.
Individual freedom and the rights of others were foundational to Gaston’s thinking. His own life exemplifies this nexus between individual liberty and private property, a reflection of the classical liberal tradition of John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Gaston envisioned a world in which black Americans were sovereign, morally free, and equal.
In the end, Gaston’s admiration of Washingtonian economic advancement along with his support for the Birmingham campaign and those involved in direct action like King is why he is such an complex and intriguing figure. His efforts to ensure economic freedom and civil rights for black Americans were pivotal to his legacy as a quiet and yet groundbreaking force in the civil rights movement.