On July 4 in 1892, A. G. Gaston was born. He was an African American businessman and financial activist.
Born Arthur George Gaston in a log cabin in racially segregated Demopolis, AL, he never went beyond the 10th grade in school. He moved to Birmingham in 1905 with the Loveman family, who employed his mother as a cook. He served in the army in France in World War I, and then went to work in the mines run by Tennessee Coal & Iron Co. in Fairfield, AL. He hit on the plan of selling lunches to his fellow miners, and once he had enough money, he took on the informal role of banker, extending loans at 25 percent interest to his coworkers. An inspiring man, he made a way for himself when there was no way.
Soon Gaston quit mining to set up the Booker T. Washington Burial Society, originally modeled after a fraternal order in 1923. Gaston’s business empire grew to include two radio stations, two cemeteries, the Citizen’s Federal Savings Bank in downtown Birmingham. In 1938, Gaston extended his business holdings throughout the neighborhood and beyond, opening Smith & Gaston sponsored gospel music programs on local radio stations. In 1954, Gaston built the A.G. Gaston Motel on the site adjoining Kelly Ingram Park where the mortuary had once stood.
In addition to his business sense, he had a passion for equality, but he was quiet and discreet about promoting it. In the decade after the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies used the A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham as a safe refuge to plan their activities. By the 1960s, he was probably the richest black man in America.
Gaston persistently but quietly and discreetly promoted voting rights and equal treatment for blacks. When Eugene “Bull” Connor, the notorious commissioner of public safety, had King arrested in 1963, Gaston put up the $160,000 bail money from his own pocket.
Gaston sold his insurance company in 1987 and worked at his bank until six months before his death, in his hometown, in 1996. He left behind the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, the A. G. Gaston Construction Company, a financial institution, CFS Bancshares. The City of Birmingham owns the A. G. Gaston 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.