” We can’t fight and beg from those we fight at the same time.”-A.G. Gaston
The small black dirt roads in Demopolis, Alabama held nothing but poverty for Tom and Rosa Gaston. The arrival of their new child was probably their only joy in a world with an insatiable appetite for the souls of black folk. Tragically, after July 4, 1892, Tom would not have much time with his young son Arthur George, as he would pass on a short time after his birth. Young Arthur was brought up in a log cabin with his grandparents who were former slaves. His mother was a cook for a Jewish family who had not too long ago moved to the area.
Young Arthur grew up learning the informal, yet socially restrictive customs of the Jim Crow South. If a white person was walking on the sidewalk, and you didn’t get off the sidewalk and let them pass, you were considered an uppity negro. In the racist customs of the south, uppity negroes could be beaten, whipped, and even lynched for such an infraction. It was because of these practices, that Arthur’s grandparents made sure he had respect for all people, but especially, “white folk.” This led him to erroneously conclude that if he saw a dead body at the end of a rope, the person must have done something to deserve it. He would later learn that this ideology was a cruel hoax perpetrated on him by his grandparents out of love and a desire to ensure his survival in a horrifically abominable culture.
They say that God laughs when man plans. And if that is the case, he must have had a damn good chuckle when the good white folks of Demopolis planned to feast on the broken dreams and hopes of Arthur George Gaston. Because in 1905, divine intervention occurred when the family whom his mother was working for moved to Birmingham, AL. While he enjoyed the beneficence of the Loveman Family, he peeped the long hours and sound investments made by the family’s patriarch. Loveman founded the State’s largest department store and became a successful investor and entrepreneur.
Possessing an uncanny ability to sense a financial opportunity, Gaston(Arthur) applied a tireless work ethic with boundless creativity and always found himself with a little extra change. As early as childhood, Gaston always found ways to make money. For instance, even though his grandparents were poor, he noticed that their yard was the only one in the neighborhood that had a swing. So what did he do? He charged admission in the form of pins and buttons for neighborhood kids to play on the swing.
In Birmingham, his mother enrolled him at the Tuggle Institute; a privately run charitable school founded by educator and legal reformer Carrie Tuggle in 1903. The Tuggle Institute’s educational philosophy was founded on the Booker T. Washington ideal which emphasized a concentration on skilled trades and business. Washington frequently visited the school making inspirational speeches to the students. It was here that Gaston found a true role model. However, he grew restless with the school and dropped out in tenth grade to create his own path to greatness.
This path included various odd jobs in various places. He worked as a newspaper salesman selling subscriptions to the Black Owned Birmingham Reporter. He also worked as a bellman at the Battle House Hotel in Mobile, AL, a truck driver for a dry-cleaning company, and a coal miner in Fairfield, AL. He soon started a side hustle by selling homemade sandwiches to his fellow miners at lunchtime. He showed the virtue of frugality by saving a remarkable two-thirds of his income. This was due to the fact that he was not much of a ladies man. In fact, many said that the women derided him as a square. In 21st century terms: a lame. However, the lame would have his revenge when he began bankrolling loans to their boyfriends at a rate of 25 percent interest.(Take that bitches!!!!…lol)
But it was literally in a life or death situation that Gaston found his calling. A frequent problem in the lives of poor, southern blacks was a decent burial. After a hellish life, a decent burial was considered a kind of maccabe pleasure. It was not uncommon for many black men and women to be buried in potato sacks along some unknown creek or riverside. A decent burial was such an attraction that when a government study of syphilis began in Tuskegee, it was offered to entice black male participation in the study. Thus, in a strange irony, Gaston found the opportunity of a lifetime by faithfully serving blacks in death.
Gaston founded the Booker T. Washington Burial Society. Gaston’s business model was similar to fraternal orders in that he required society members to pay a weekly $0.25 fee for burial services upon their death. He held a virtual monopoly when he formed coalitions with black ministers who steered members of their congregations to his services. Understanding the power of radio, he sponsored gospel singers and Black Alabama’s first radio program, which ran his advertisements every 30 mins.
While he held a virtual monopoly on burial services in Birmingham, he was not about to stop there. An early practitioner of what today is known as vertical integration, Gaston created businesses that offered: burial insurance, undertaking, casket manufacturing, and sales of burial plots in his own cemeteries. In fact, it is alleged that many blacks in Birmingham rightfully believed that Gaston controlled the flow of black life from the womb to the tomb. This was because his businesses served the basic need of any community: jobs.
Gaston’s various enterprises needed employees to run them. As a result, he founded the Booker T. Washington Business College in 1939 to train blacks to work in his small but growing empire. He subsequently started a real estate company called Vulcan Realty and Investment. A senior citizens home, more radio stations and the famous A. G. Gaston Motel would soon follow. This was the very motel that housed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Gaston rented these rooms at low cost, and at times, gave them away for free to organizers to plan campaign strategy so that their homes would not suffer the vicious backlash of white reprisals. It should be noted that his motel was later bombed by unknown persons.
In the early 1950s, much like the sub-prime mortgage scandals of today, it was a difficult task for blacks to get home loans from white banks. And on those occasions when they did, the loans were so onerous that blacks could rarely gather equity value in their properties. In response to this financial chicanery, Gaston opened the Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association. It was second only to Alabama Penny Savings, as a black owned bank. Alabama Penny Savings had closed some 40 years earlier.
A true acolyte of Booker T. Washington, Gaston was often mocked as an Uncle Tom by the young activists of the Civil Rights Movement. Apparently, this was because, Gaston, like Washington, was not a big proponent of Civil Rights. Or was he? Upon closer examination, it appears that Gaston had no real problem with the goal of the movement, his divergence was with its’ strategies. He preferred the quiet financial power of the black dollar to the loud disruptive demonstrations of Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth, C.T. Vivian and Martin Luther King Jr. To Gaston, a more important question was: what good was it to have the right to shop at a store if you couldn’t afford to buy anything in there? Gaston understood that there was a cost for everything; even for something as amorphous as black power. To prove his point, Gaston called First Alabama Bank in Birmingham and threatened to remove all of his money from their accounts if a for whites only sign was not removed from the water fountains. The signs were removed right away, with no marching or demonstrations.
But while he was regarded as an Uncle Tom by movement activists, it was clear that white bigots made no such distinction. After posting cash bail in an amount of $160,000 to secure the freedom of Martin Luther King Jr from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, his motel was bombed. Later, it was his home. Luckily, no one was hurt. His subsequent kidnapping in 1976 was averted when the police apprehended the suspect.
Years later, after the smoke cleared and the hate dissipated, it was time for the love again. After numerous accolades and awards for public colleges and private foundations, in 1992, Black Enterprise named him the Entrepreneur of the Century. In 1996 when he died, A.G. Gaston’s estimated net worth was $130,000,000. Gaston’s legacy would go on to touch the 21st century when in 2017, President Barack Obama designated the A.G. Gaston Motel, the Center of the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.
A.G. Gaston made a fortune by serving black people when no one else would. Though derided as an Uncle Tom, his contributions are too numerous to mention in this little article. But it is sufficient to say that in the great game of American Capitalism, he was and is the Grand Master. If we can be proponents of other entrepreneurial genuises like Napolean Hill, Robert T. Kiyosaki, & Andrew Carnegie, we can certainly study the genius of arguably, the best to play the game. His philosophy is reduced to 10 simple rules for success:
1. Save a part of all you earn. Pay yourself first. Take it off the top and bank it. You’ll be surprised how fast the money builds up. If you have two or three thousand dollars in the bank, sooner or later somebody will come along and show you how to double it. Money doesn’t spoil. Keep it.
2. Establish a reputation at a bank or savings and loan association. Save at an established institution and borrow there. Stay away from loan sharks.
3. Take no chances with your money. Play the safe number, the good one. A man can’t afford to lose has no business gambling.
4. Never borrow anything that, if forced to it, you can’t pay back.
5. Don’t get big headed with the little fellows. That’s where the money is. If you stick with the little fellows, give them your devotion, they’ll make you big.
6. Don’t have so much pride. Wear the same suit for a year or two. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of suit the pocket is in if there is money in the pocket.
7. Find a need and fill it. Successful businesses are founded on the needs of the people. Once in business, keep good books. Also, hire the best people you can find.
8. Stay in your own class. Never run around with people you can’t compete with.
9. Once you get money or a reputation for having money, people will give you money.
10. Once you reach a certain bracket, it is very difficult not to make more money.
Tony Maceo is a senior blogger at the Negromanosphere and the Chief Blogger at Power and Strategy.com. For more articles go to Power and Strategy.com. Like, share and subscribe to the mailing list. Become a patron @powerofstrategies on Patreon. Like and follow us on FB and subscribe to the You Tube Channel @ Power and Strategy. Till next time I’ll…..well ya know!