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What Millennials Can Learn from Business Icon A.G. Gaston

By Jasmine Phillips

“Find a need and fill it.” One of my personal favorite maxims stated by the legendary Birmingham businessman A.G. Gaston.

There are plenty of books, articles, interviews, as well as other sources that anyone can access and learn about Gaston’s legacy. As I researched Gaston and read about him, it was clear to me that one of the reasons for his success was that he didn’t have any problem with putting people in positions to win.

Known as the richest Black man in America during the 1960s, A.G. Gaston overcame much to reach his level of success. He established businesses across many industries such as banking, construction, real estate, hospitality, burial insurance, cemeteries and radio stations. And just so you know what those businesses were here are some:

  • Booker T. Washington Insurance Company
  • Smith & Gaston Funeral Home
  • Booker T. Washington Business College
  • G. Gaston Motel
  • Citizens Federal Savings & Loan
  • G. Gaston Building
  • G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club
  • Booker T. Washington Broadcasting Company
  • G. Gaston Construction Company

Citizens Federal Savings & Loan which is now Citizens Trust Bank and The A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club still operate in Birmingham. The historic A.G. Gaston Motel is currently undergoing renovations to become an educational hub and museum.

Gaston wasn’t afraid to put Black people first. He took this to heart by ensuring that Black entrepreneurs across Birmingham had the tools and resources they needed to succeed. He was just as passionate about fighting for equal rights as building sustainable Black businesses. I would argue that Black entrepreneurship played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement. Take for example Birmingham’s historic 4th Avenue Business District, where Black-owned banks, mortuaries, movie theaters, retail stores and more flourished in the 1960s and some still operate today. The A.G. Gaston Motel was located in the district as well. These districts played a critical role in developing economic growth for the Black community in Birmingham.

As a Black millennial woman and emerging entrepreneur living in the South who is passionate about making sure that my community has equal access and opportunities, I admire the life and legacy of Dr. Gaston in many ways. He had no issues with using his platforms to create spaces and opportunities for others to grow and create long-lasting change. Whether it was promoting voting rights in the 1920s by encouraging his workers to vote or threatening white banks by removing his funds because they wouldn’t take down their “white-only” signs, he was no stranger in advocating for the betterment of our people. One of his most significant efforts during the Civil Rights movement was creating a safe space known as the “war room” at the A.G. Gaston Motel for Civil Rights activists to come together. The Honorable Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham’s Rev. Fred Shuttleworth and others met in the heart of downtown Birmingham to organize and strategize their efforts that would transcend the movement.

This legacy is what makes the work that Bob Dickerson and Gaynelle Jackson, co-hosts for the A.G. Gaston Conference, promoting entrepreneur for the last 17 years so important. They are committed to remembering the life and legacy of Gaston and have found a formula to connect Black entrepreneurs, community advocates, educators, and corporate leaders to share ideas on how to create economic empowerment in their communities.

I encourage any millennial who is serious about creating the change they want to see or those young entrepreneurs seeking guidance on starting or maintaining their businesses to be a part of this year’s virtual conference February 23 and 24 beginning at 9 a.m. each day.

Dr. A.G. Gaston was a pioneer in his own right. Black millennials owe it to him and others who paved the way to continue the fight and ensure that our communities not just have a seat at the table but create tables of our own.

To register for the 17th annual A.G. Gaston virtual conference, visit www.aggastonconference.biz. Admission is free to attend.

Jasmine is a writer and public relations strategist.