AG Gaston’s Legacy Influences Annual Conference


Special for the Birmingham Times

Living under Jim Crow in Birmingham, a black person had to navigate a world of restrictions. They couldn’t swim in a public pool. They could not place their black hand on the “white” Bible in a courtroom. They could not be buried in certain cemeteries.

It was the ultimate rejection, according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; like, “forever fighting a degenerating feeling of no one”.

But AG Gaston, Birmingham’s business titan, didn’t just sink into despair. Despite Birmingham’s stubborn segregation system, he created a corporate empire serving African Americans. Gaston believed that even if you were a person of color, “a portion of everything you earn belongs to you.”

Born the grandson of former slaves, Arthur George Gaston owned dozens of businesses and provided hundreds of jobs for black people. He boasted that his businesses were “strictly 100% black” and provided services in everything from banking to funerals.

Gaston created his empire by “filling a need” for African Americans.

Within the walls of his businesses, he was not bound by the restrictions and permissions set by oppressive laws. In his economy, he found his freedom. Then he shared it with others who were like him.

Today, many years after Gaston’s businesses lined city streets and dotted skylines, his legacy and the lessons he shared remain. Black-owned businesses — from restaurants to barbershops — populate the historic downtown Fourth Avenue District. Black-owned communications companies, clothing stores, construction companies and medical facilities have sprung up across the city. And an annual event that celebrates black businesses bears his name: the AG Gaston Conference.

Led by business moguls Bob Dickerson and Gaynelle Adams-Jackson, this gathering is where business leaders learn and develop best practices, while inspiring the next generation.

Dickerson cut his teeth in business under Gaston’s tutelage and pledged to continue to honor the man and his legacy. This conference is one of those means. He and Adams-Jackson said they want to create a platform where accomplished leaders, speakers and business owners can share their experience and create an environment of celebration, challenge and empowerment.

The 18th Annual AG Gaston Conference will be held February 22-23. This year’s theme is “Navigating the Path from Civil Rights to Economic Justice” and will take place at the downtown Medical Forum. Guest speakers will include Dr. Andre M. Perry, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Autumn Kyles, CEO of Detroit Dough; and Cheryl McKissack Daniel, President and CEO of McKissack & McKissack. The event includes panel discussions and special programs open to entrepreneurs, business owners, business leaders and community advocates.

Answer to a need

In the 1950s, the lack of hotel accommodation for blacks passing through the city gave rise to a network of inhabitants. Locals would open their homes and offer a seat at their table when celebrities, politicians or activists came to town. As a businessman with a keen sense of growing needs, Gaston saw this as an opportunity.

In 1951, while traveling in Europe, Gaston learned that a Baptist convention was planning to host one of their National Sunday School and Baptist Union Conventions in Birmingham. Bringing cloth men and women into the city would be nice, but there would be no place for bishops, pastors and teachers to rest.

“It bothered me that the facilities for black people were so limited,” Gaston said. “White hotels were not all-race friendly, and with one or two exceptions, black-run hotels were little more than shelters for transients.”

Gaston invested $300,000 to build a first class motel. It opened on June 30, 1954, boasting 32 air-conditioned units with individual telephones in each room. There were custom draperies and luxurious bedspreads.

“Many people who pass through our city will now have a good place to stay,” Gaston said. “I have long regretted that there were no upscale motels or resting places for black visitors to our city, and I was determined to make our new motel a place that would attract black tourists. .”