The 13th Annual A.G. Gaston Conference will once again take place in Birmingham, Alabama, on February 14th and 15th. This year’s conference features a rich line-up of local, regional, and national business leaders, all speaking on the theme, Closing the Wealth Gap Through Entrepreneurship and Policy. Smart Hustle Magazine editor and founder Ramon Ray will be a featured speaker, along with Janice Mathis, Executive Director of the National Council of Negro Women and Dr. Dennis Kimbro, author of What Makes the Great Great: Strategies for Extraordinary Achievement. I’m happy to tell you something about the extraordinary man for whom the conference is named.
In the panoply of noted African-American business owners, Alfred George (A.G.) Gaston is a luminary, an early leader in the Buy Black movement. At the time of his death in 1996, at the age of 103, his legacy included the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, the A.G. Gaston Construction Company, the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club, and CFS Bancshares, the nation’s second largest black-owned bank. The grandson of former slaves, Gaston was born in 1892 in the Alabama city of Demopolis, and later moved to Birmingham at the age of 15. In 1910 he joined the army and served overseas in France during World War I, later receiving an honorable discharge.
Gaston’s illustrious business career began in the 1930’s when he opened up an insurance company and funeral home across from Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. Here’s more from his bio on the conference website:
As his insurance business grew, he diversified his financial services by opening the state’s only black-owned savings and loan in the early 1950s. His business also sponsored black cultural events and even formed a black quartet that performed on the nation’s first African-American radio program. In 1954 Gaston opened A.G. Gaston Motel near his other businesses to welcome black visitors turned away from hotels that practiced Jim Crow segregation. Before the close of the decade, he employed the largest number of African Americans in the state and he had become one of the wealthiest African Americans in the United States.
During the early years of the modern civil rights movement, Gaston effectively maneuvered quietly behind the scenes to support civil rights activists. He offered to donate money to the legal team of Autherine Lucy, an African American who in 1955 had filed a lawsuit to integrate the graduate school at the University of Alabama. He also gave financial assistance to Tuskegee activists forced out of their homes because they challenged voting discrimination. In 1956 when Birmingham civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the organization held its initial meeting at Gaston’s downtown office. Gaston also allowed activists to lodge at his hotel and meet there to plan campaigns. During the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations at Kelly Ingram Park, Gaston used his financial resources to bail out of jail Martin Luther King, Jr. and other incarcerated activists.
In preparation for his participation in the A.G. Gaston Conference, Ramon Ray recently spoke with one of the conference founders, Bob Dickerson, who had worked directly with Mr. Gaston prior to his death. Ramon learned that although Gaston was quite wealthy, he was very frugal and humble - not the sort of person to show off flashy cars or clothes. He would often sit in the lobby of his own bank, eating popcorn and talking to customers.
Before investing in or backing any business venture or project, Gaston made sure to understand it fully. Sounds like one of the fundamental Shark Tank principles! He was also fair and honest. According to Dickerson, Gaston wouldn’t ever “beat you” at a deal, but he also ensured that you didn’t beat him, either. He came to work every day, even into his 90’s. He believed that in order to be successful, you needed to put in the time, effort, and work hard. Now that’s some work ethic!
Here’s another excerpt from the conference website:
Gaston knew that successful business ownership was a key to making communities safer and more viable. Gaston believed that the entire marketplace wins when business owners from all walks of life receive help to become more successful. The purpose of the conference is to help more businesses become more competitive via workshops, speakers, and hands-on demonstrations.
If you’re interested in learning more about the life and work of A.G. Gaston, award-winning television journalist Carol Jenkins and her daughter Elizabeth Gardner Hines, Gaston’s niece and grand-niece, have written a biography about his life and times, called Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. The more I learn about him, the more I understand why Gaston has been compared, in wealth and influence, to J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.
To hear Smart Hustle Magazine founder Ramon Ray and the rest of the fantastic speakers at the A.G. Gaston Conference, click below for more information about attending.
Do you have information about other great African-American business leaders? Share what you know in our comments section below!