By Jasmine Phillips
For the Birmingham Times
As small business owners, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and community advocates in Birmingham get ready to engage with one another during the economic empowerment conference, some may ask why we are still celebrating the life and legacy of the late Dr. A.G. Gaston.
The 18th annual A.G. Gaston Conference will take place Tuesday, February 22 – Wednesday, February 23, 2022, at the Medical Forum located in downtown Birmingham. The two-day conference will feature an array of panels and programs open to aspiring entrepreneurs, business owners, corporate leaders and community advocates. The conference is inspired by the life and legacy of Arthur George (A.G) Gaston, a successful businessman in Alabama during the Jim Crow law period.
Here are three reasons why celebrating Dr. A.G. Gaston is still relevant today.
(1) Understanding how Dr. A.G. Gaston got his start
In order to appreciate all that Dr. Gaston brought to Black Birmingham, we must understand how it all started. His journey to become an entrepreneur started as a child growing up in Demopolis, AL, where his first business was selling rides on a tree swing in his grandparent’s backyard. His mother would later move their family to Birmingham where Gaston’s entrepreneurial career would flourish.
Birmingham was known as one of the top growing industrial cities during the early 1900s. As a teen, Gaston took a job at the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company where one of his first business plans came into play. While working at the mine, he sold lunches to workers and began lending money to them at 25 percent interest. It was there when Gaston came up with the idea of selling burial insurance to workers. He saw many widows come to the local mines that sought donations to help bury their husbands.
As a result, Dr. Gaston established the Booker T. Washington Burial Insurance Company in 1923. The company was later known as the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company in 1932. This business venture would create a path that allowed Dr. Gaston to generate wealth and begin building his fortune.
Gaston would later start dozens of businesses in Birmingham such as the A.G. Gaston Motel, Smith & Gaston Funeral Home, Citizens Federal Savings & Loan, A.G. Gaston Construction, and many more. His innovative and creative thinking would allow him to create and sustain a life that helped thousands of Black people across Birmingham and the State of Alabama. The “Entrepreneur of the Century” as named by Black Enterprise Magazine is a title worth remembering and honoring.
(2) Black Entrepreneurship played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement
In a previous article, I expressed my thoughts on why Black entrepreneurship was a key factor in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Gaston was never afraid of putting his people and community in positions to succeed. He made it his mission to help Black entrepreneurs across Birmingham get the tools and resources they needed to thrive.
He was just as passionate about fighting for equal rights as well as building sustainable Black businesses. Birmingham’s historic 4th Avenue Business District, where Black-owned banks, mortuaries, movie theaters, retail stores, and more flourished in the 1960s and served as the heartbeat of the community.
The Birmingham Civil Rights District was home to several of Dr. Gaston’s businesses, some that still operate today. Citizens Federal Savings & Loan which is now Citizens Trust Bank and the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club are still in operation while the historic A.G. Gaston Motel is currently undergoing renovations to become an educational hub and museum. These districts played a critical role in developing economic growth for the Black community in Birmingham.
If Black entrepreneurs were successful, this could in return help their communities grow and become economically empowered. Why is this important? Because decades later, many would say that we are now in a new civil rights movement.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2020 business survey, there are approximately 1.1 million businesses that are minority-owned. In the State of Alabama, there are roughly 124,000 minority-owned businesses. However, research conducted by the University of Alabama suggests that 80 percent of Black-owned businesses fail within the first two years. These numbers are not the greatest, but it shows that there is still room for major improvement. This gives us more than a good enough reason to not just celebrate Dr. A.G. Gaston and his achievements but to study his way of thinking by creating avenues that would create better opportunities that benefit our communities.
(3) A.G. Gaston’s maxims can be applied to our lives each day
There are 10 maxims in total that Dr. Gaston believed in. Each one is different than the other but they all share a common goal. From financial wellness to serving your community, Dr. Gaston believed that these maxims were the keys to his success.
- Save a part of all you earn.
- Establish a reputation at a bank or savings and loan association.
- Take no chances with your money.
- Never borrow anything that, if forced to it, you can’t payback.
- Don’t get “Big-Headed” with the “Little Fellows.”
- Don’t have so much pride.
- Find a need and fill it.
- Stay in your own class.
- Once you get money or a reputation for having money, people will give you money.
- Once you reach a certain bracket, it is very difficult to not make money.
To register for the 18th annual A.G. Gaston Conference, visit www.aggastonconference.biz.