By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Roderick Royal vividly remembers the day A.G. Gaston visited the Boys Club that bore Gaston’s name.
Royal was about 11 when the wealthy black man came to the club on Seventh Avenue North. The youngster asked Gaston if he could drive his car. Gaston said sure and reached for his keys as the youngster asked what the philanthropist would pay him.
“He said, ‘Everything is not done for pay,’” Royal recalled. “That was the first of many lessons that I and many other boys got from Arthur Gaston.”
Royal tells that and other stories in his book, “A.G. & Me – Intersection Road and Friendship With A.G. Gaston.” The 70-page paperback, available for $16.99 at Books-A-Million, chronicles the mentoring relationship between a boy from Fountain Heights and the man who was considered the richest black man in Alabama.
The institutional influence of Gaston, born July 4, 1892, on boys in Birmingham is well known. He rallied businessmen in the city to fund the club and also donated the property where it was built.
But there was more to the intersecting paths of Royal and Gaston, who truly became acquainted when a 13-year-old Royal was tabbed the Boys Club’s State Boy of the Year. By the time Royal received a national Boys Club honor, Gaston knew him by name.
“I think it was just a natural attraction, just a natural thing,” said Royal, a former president of the Birmingham City Council who is now pastor of Zion Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Smithfield. “He took a personal interest in what I was doing. In one of those letters that I have in the book, he said, ‘You are our best example so far.’”
Royal and Gaston had several things in common. Each attended Tuggle Elementary School and Royal studied at Tuskegee University while Gaston was a member of that school’s board of trustees.
“Whenever he would come to Tuskegee, he’d always invite me to come by Dorothy Hall, which was the guest house, and spend a little time with him,” said Royal, who also teaches at Miles College. “Later on, whenever I was in town, we would have lunches.”
Those weekly Wednesday lunches in Birmingham continued when Royal completed his stint in the Army, often frequenting Joy Young, Gaston’s favorite Chinese restaurant. Sometimes they would go to the Relay House Club, the forerunner of today’s Summit Club.
“I still have the matchbook from the first time we went to the Relay Club,” Royal said. “He signed it for me because going to the Relay Club was a big thing, especially if you were a poor kid and had never been exposed to that kind of thing.”
Royal had a book launch on Thursday at St. John AME Church, where Gaston was a member. A book signing is set for July 23 at Books-A-Million at Brookwood Village.