We all know that there was a time in which the United States appeared as a country where not all human beings were equals in terms of their rights. Fortunately, slavery is indeed part of the past nowadays. But when slaves were a common aspect of society, culture, politics, and economics in the country, it was hard, if not impossible, for everyone to think that any person coming from a black community would at any point become one of the richest persons in the country. But that is exactly what happened with Arthur George Gaston, better known as A. G. Gaston.
The story of A. G. Gaston could indeed be taken as a clear example of what has been termed for a long time as the American Dream. But his story is much more complicated than that. He was not only an African American, which was not a minor point at that time regarding the kind of opportunities that a person could have to succeed in his or her life, but also came from a very poor background. Yet even so he was able to become one of the leading and wealthiest entrepreneurs of the South in the twentieth century, and a very important civil rights activist. His story shows in that way how human tenacity plays a central role to understand how a person may succeed despite the many adversities that he or she may face during his or her life.
Gaston was born on July 4, 1892 in Demopolis, Alabama in a log cabin. This talks very well about how poor his family was at that moment. His parents were Tom and Rosa McDonald Gaston, but he did not have the chance to live with them. He instead grew up with his paternal grandparents, Joe and Idella Gaston, who had been slaves, before moving to Birmingham in 1905 with his mother. She was employed there as a cook by the Loveman family, which was connected with the Loveman’s of Alabama, a chain of department stores.
Gaston aspired to attend the Tuskegee Institute, a private, historically black university located in Alabama, but he instead attended the Tuggle Institute, also in Alabama. This was a local boarding school were black children, most of them destitute orphans and juvenile defendants, were given free education. Gaston ended his formal education there when he was in 10th grade, and joined the army in 1910, serving overseas in France during World War I.
After receiving honorable discharge from the military, he went back to Alabama, and started working in the mines that belonged to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. There, he started his career as an entrepreneur. He sold meals and affordable burial insurance to the black community at that time, and later in the 1930s, he finally had the chance to open an insurance company and funeral home in downtown Birmingham. This was a really successful move for Gaston. His business grew, and suddenly he saw himself offering other services, including savings and loans for the black community in Alabama, but also others having to do with communications, real estate, insurance, and so on. When he died on January 19, 1996, at the age of 103, his wealth and influence could easily be compared to those of J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It is calculated, for instance, that his fortune was worth well over $130 million.
But all this wealth and influence did not blind A. G. Gaston regarding his background. He was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and he contributed to it in different ways. At the beginning, he supported it in a rather quiet way, mostly behind the scenes. His support included things apparently as simple as opening a motel for black people. However, the aim of this place was to receive black visitors that had been turned away from other hotels due to segregation caused by Jim Crow laws. He also allowed activists to meet there and plan their campaigns. In general, he sponsored black cultural events, and in the 1950s, he had employed the largest number of African Americans in Alabama.
However, his involvement in the civil rights movement became more and more explicit with time. Gaston offered financial support to the legal team of Autherine Lucy, who filed a lawsuit in 1955 to have the right to integrate the graduate school at the University of Alabama. He also gave financial help to Tuskegee activists that challenged voting discrimination and were forced out of their homes, and let civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth use his downtown office to hold the initial meeting of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. He even employed his financial resources to take Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists out of jail when they were incarcerated after the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations at Kelly Ingram Park.