Birmingham honors the Black businessman who quietly backed the Civil Rights Movement
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the courtyard of the newly restored AG Gaston Motel.
"This is truly sacred ground where we're standing," says National Park Service Ranger Kathryn Gardiner. She points up to a second-floor room where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied protesters from the balcony during the Birmingham Campaign in 1963, when youth joined the fight against segregation in what became known as The Children's Crusade.
"It's just really incredible, all the history that unfolded here," Gardiner says.
"It was room 30," adds Denise Gilmore, senior director of social justice and racial equity for Birmingham's mayor. "It was the war room. That's what it was called."
The late Arthur George "AG" Gaston was a prominent African American businessman who offered his hotel as a safe and secure place for MLK, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other civil rights leaders to strategize and have a hot meal. He also quietly posted bail for the children and teens who were arrested for demonstrating, often after authorities had turned fire hoses and police dogs on them.
The AG Gaston Motel is slated to open to the public this summer as the city marks the 60th anniversary of the Birmingham movement, when the brutal response from white segregationists helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act.
Gilmore calls this a place of collective memory. It had been a famous motel even before the movement, listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book Travel Guide when Gaston built it in 1954.
"It opened so Black people in the segregated South would have a place to stay that was safe and that they would be treated with dignity," says Gilmore.
Standing in the courtyard is like stepping back in time, and being in the motor court where patrons would have parked in the day. The rooms are facing inward with bright orange doors, and turquoise balcony rails.
Gilmore and Gardiner say Gaston modeled it after a Holiday Inn.
"It opened with 32 air-conditioned rooms. Think about that in 1954, for Black people to be able to have that kind of comfort as they travel," says Gilmore.
"Wall-to-wall carpet. It was touted as a luxury hotel and there were very famous guests who stayed here, such as Aretha Franklin," adds Gardiner. "Colin and Alma Powell honeymooned here ... there was always music and the restaurant was wildly popular."
The motel survived a Mother's Day bombing in 1963, near room 30. No one was hurt and it was repaired, but years later the place struggled to stay in business once integration opened new options for Black travelers. It eventually closed in the 1980s.
"It really sat here empty, deteriorating," Gilmore says. "There wasn't a lot of love for this site."
But in the last five years the city and the park service have teamed to save not only the historic structure, but also to highlight the role Gaston played in empowering Black Birmingham during Jim Crow rule. He died in 1996 at the age of 103.
From humble beginnings to building an empire
Gaston was a prolific entrepreneur. The hotel was one of more than a dozen businesses he started to give Birmingham's Black community goods and services they could not access otherwise. It all started with a burial club. An offshoot of that business is still in operation today as the Smith and Gaston Funeral home.
"The funeral home was the basis of his empire," says funeral home director Paul Gardner, one of Gaston's nephews. He clicks off the list of businesses that followed, including an insurance company, cemeteries, a bank, a pharmacy, a bottling company, a construction firm, a business college, a nursing home, and radio stations. Many of them were named after Booker T. Washington, who he considered a role model.
Gardner, 69, has fond memories of going to his uncle's house as a child to swim in the backyard pool. He says it's remarkable what his uncle achieved given the hostile climate in the Deep South when he was starting out in the 1920s.
"I cannot even imagine what he went through trying to be in business. The odds were terribly against him," Gardner says with admiration. "He was a fighter and he was determined and he made it. And he wanted other Black people to see that they could make it too."
It's only as an adult that Gardner realizes the impact his uncle had on Birmingham. He says that 100 years later, the funeral home still attracts customers because of what his uncle did in the community. "People come in and say, 'you know, I met Mr. Gaston when I was a teenager and he gave me a job. And that's why we are here to support you today.'"
Starting at a young age
AG Gaston was born in a log cabin in Demopolis, Ala. in 1892, and moved to Birmingham when his mother, Rosie, got a job as a cook for a white family.
Gardner says his uncle grew up "dirt poor." But even as a youngster, he had an entrepreneurial spirit, charging neighborhood kids a button to swing in his backyard.
"That's how he started. That was his first enterprise collecting buttons," Gardiner says with a deep throaty laugh.
"He had really had no shot at anything, with less than a high school education, the grandson of a slave. And he did it anyway," says Creola Gaston Lucas. She's AG Gaston's granddaughter.
Lucas is at her niece Rochelle Malone's house, leafing through scrapbooks and reminiscing about AG Gaston's remarkable life.
"I guess we're kind of [the] keeper of records. I have various random things about him. Different articles," says Malone. "This is from 1960. Ebony magazine. And it has the AG Gaston story." Looking at the magazine cover, her aunt Creola chimes in, "look at how much it cost?" The two respond in unison, "35 cents," with a good laugh.
There's a letter from President Nixon praising his business acumen, a picture of Gaston with the boxer Muhammad Ali, and his Army discharge papers. He served during World War I.
Lucas says these papers reflect his national status – a status that the powers that be in Birmingham refused to fully acknowledge.
"My grandfather was a spokesperson for the Negro community," says Lucas with pride in her voice. Her grandfather, she says, had meetings with the white establishment in Birmingham during segregation, including Bull Connor, the ardent segregationist police commissioner of Birmingham.
Lucas says Gaston told her the story of one such meeting with Connor: "He said as he entered his office, Bull Connor said, 'Oh, come on in here, nigger Gaston.'"
When she said she would have told Connor off, Gaston explained otherwise.
"My grandfather told me, 'you have to know when you don't need to say anything. Because I knew who I was.'"
Finding a need and filling that need
When he left the Army, Gaston worked in Birmingham's industrial mills and mines, and sold plate lunches to his co-workers as a side gig to earn extra money. That's what seeded his future businesses.
"He had rules, and he followed those. He was very disciplined," says Lucas describing her grandfather's character. "He believed in the mantra 'finding a need and filling that need.' And it was so much needed for African Americans because of segregation."
For example, Lucas says his bank, Citizens Federal Savings and Loan, meant access to capital for the Black community.
"Once he got that bank started, Negroes were able to borrow money to build homes, to educate their children. And to travel and to start their own businesses," she says. "That opened up a whole new world."
Rochelle Malone sees her great grandfather as revolutionary.
"He was about providing the yes in order to invest in a future of people that had not even been born yet."
She has fond memories of fishing trips with her great-grandfather. It was one of his favorite activities, and where he could clear his mind, she says.
Gaston's descendants are glad to see the AG Gaston Motel restored after so many years, and are now pushing to have a Birmingham street named after him.
"He truly is an icon. I call him a civil rights icon," says Malone.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin says the city is working to honor Gaston's contributions. He has a personal connection – as a child Woodfin played on the peewee football team for the AG Gaston Boy's Club. Woodfin says Gaston was vital to Black Birmingham's progress.
"The quiet shepherd who said that any and all things the Black community needs, if we can't get it somewhere else, we're going to build our own," Woodfin says. "He's the backbone."
Staking out the middle ground, controversially
Gaston however was controversial in his day because of the middle ground he tried to stake out. While leaders like MLK and Shuttlesworth were the public faces of the movement, Gaston used his wealth and influence behind the scenes, and preferred to keep the lines of communication open with the white power structure. That drew rebuke in some circles.
"He was providing for the African American community but he also had a rapport with the white community," says Malone. "He capitalized on that to put in place the things that needed to be put in place for his people. Now he was not always liked for that – he was looked to be an Uncle Tom."
Back at the AG Gaston Motel, there's a new exhibit about his life and work. In one archive video Gaston explains his position.
"I was with the movement, but I just couldn't see myself getting out there and provoking somebody to hit me. You know," Gaston said.
Birmingham's Denise Gilmore says even though Gaston was not marching in the streets, his support sustained the movement here.
"Gaston bailed out so many people," Gilmore says. "I think he spent over $160,000 bailing people out. He bailed Dr. King out numerous times."
Now, Gilmore says the motel can serve as a reminder of AG Gaston's legacy and what was achieved in Birmingham in forcing the nation to recognize the human rights of Black Americans.
"It should continue to be a place for reflection on the sacrifices that our elders and our ancestors have made so that we are able to gather here today," she says. "You can't separate the struggles and triumphs of Black people from the American story."
The AG Gaston Motel and other landmarks of the Birmingham National Civil Rights Monument are now under consideration to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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