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A.G. Gaston: From Log Cabin To Funeral Home Mogul

Arthur George (A.G.) Gaston played a little-noticed role in history. An African-American man born in a log cabin in Demopolis, Ala., in 1892, he defied the social climate of the times to become a business leader, and later, a behind-the-scenes political leader at a critical time in civil rights history.

Buttons To Burials

Historian Suzanne Smith, author of To Serve the Living, has traced Gaston's career from his humble roots. The unlikely entrepreneur would eventually make millions of dollars, but Smith tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that as a child growing up in Demopolis, Gaston started out working with simpler currency.

"His first business was selling rides on a tree swing in his grandparent's backyard," Smith says. "His friends would bring buttons."

As a young boy, Gaston moved to Birmingham with his mother. The city was growing as an industrial center, so as a teen, Gaston was able to find work at Tennessee Coal and Iron Company -- a local mining outfit. It was there, Smith explains, that Gaston's entrepreneurial career actually began.

In general, entrepreneurship has not been incorporated enough in Civil Rights history.

"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 says. "And he decides he's going to start his own burial society."

The society asked members to pay 25 cents to Gaston each week. These payments would guarantee members a fine burial upon death, but within three weeks of beginning his project, a member of the society passed away. With just $10 in premiums and a looming $100 in funeral costs, Gaston suddenly had his first business problem: "He almost completely falls apart at the beginning," Smith says.

But he was quick to find a solution. Gaston bargained with a Birmingham funeral director for installment payments, and later admitted his mistake to the local minister. Ultimately, this misstep helped boost the success of his venture.

"At the funeral, the minister says, 'From now on everyone in this town is gonna pay for this society, because Gaston's got a vision,' " Smith says. "And that’s how he starts his fortune."

Political Capital

During the civil rights era, black funeral directors often used their wealth to serve as community leaders and political leaders, Smith says. Gaston was no exception.

"He goes to the local bank and says, I'm going to take my millions of dollars out of your bank unless you get rid of those segregated water fountains in the lobby."

Gaston was a multimillionaire by the middle of the 20th century. He ran an insurance company and his funeral home business -- Smith and Gaston -- which by then had 13 branches in Alabama. He later opened his own savings and loan, a business college, and his own motel -- the Gaston motel.

He'd achieved a phenomenal degree of success for an African-American man in the 20th century, Smith says, and was therefore interested in advancing other African-Americans economically.

'Uncle Tom'

Gaston would often provide financial backing for the civil rights movement, even when he did not entirely agree with its way of doing things.

"He's politically somewhat conservative -- he's not confrontational, he's not considered a radical," Smith says.

So in 1963, when Martin Luther King came to Birmingham as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Gaston offered ample help, but struggled to put his differences aside completely.

"Gaston welcomes them and allows them to stay at the Gaston Motel, but he's also not agreeing, again, with their strategies," Smith says. "He's negotiating with the white business leaders of Birmingham to try to get them to come to the table with the radicals, but he doesn't want a lot of protest."

Gaston tried to warn King of the negative consequences that can come of protest: "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.' "

King did get arrested that day, and would get arrested several more times throughout the Birmingham campaign. Gaston bailed him out for $160,000 -- but that turned out to be a worthwhile price.

"It was, in the end, a smart move, because it did calm the waters, as Gaston hoped," Smith says. "Within a few weeks, the negotiations reached an agreement; the Birmingham campaign ended within a week or so."

Some of the more radical civil rights leaders called Gaston '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 says.

According to Smith, Gaston believed that negotiation could operate without confrontation. This conflict between idealism and pragmatism was present throughout his life during the civil rights movement.

"He understood that there was a way that the black community could empower itself economically," Smith says. "But it involved a lot of careful maneuvering with the white power structure in the city."

Gaston was as pioneering in fighting segregation as he was in building businesses, but his unique contributions have received little attention from historians.

"In general, entrepreneurship has not been incorporated enough in civil rights history," Smith says.

Since integration, A.G. Gaston's business legacy has all but disappeared; all of his enterprises, other than his funeral home, have closed. For present-day African-Americans, Smith says, few stories of entrepreneurship are being written in the first place.

"A lot of black entrepreneurs are really fighting today to maintain their competitiveness. I think if Gaston were alive today, he'd be somewhat sad about that," Smith says. "Until his death, he wanted to believe that African- Americans would maintain a certain loyalty to black entrepreneurs."

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