By Sarah Phalen
President and CEO
This year, INB is partnering with WCIA for its Caring Companies program to help promote celebrations and community events in the Champaign area. For Black History Month in February, WCIA will be sharing vignettes highlighting “Hidden History”: lesser-known moments or stories from the Civil Rights movement.
One of these is A.G. (Arthur George) Gaston, who was born in 1892 in a log cabin, the grandson of a slave. Though his formal education ended in 10th grade, Gaston displayed a keen entrepreneurial spirit when his family moved to Birmingham.
While working at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company as a teenager, he began selling lunches to his fellow miners, then started loaning them money at high interest rates. When he saw a need for burial insurance, he formed the Booker T. Washington Burial Insurance Company.
At one point, he realized that not enough blacks had sufficient training to work in his industries, so he opened a business school.
Takes Steps to Integrate Birmingham
Gaston became a prominent community leader in Birmingham, as owner of the insurance company, a funeral home and a motel. According to NPR, he used his wealth and status for social justice, such as telling the local bank he would take his millions of dollars out unless they got rid of the segregated water fountains in the lobby.
Gaston played a significant role in the struggle to integrate Birmingham in 1963, financially supporting the efforts even when he didn’t fully agree with their strategy and becoming involved in negotiations. His motel served as the headquarters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts and the site of civilized demonstrations.
Gaston did face violence for his support of the Civil Rights Movement, including a bombing at his hotel, firebombs at his home and being abducted.
He lived to be 103, leaving a legacy in the Birmingham communities with many of his companies still in operation.
In 2017, President Barack Obama designated the A.G. Gaston Motel as the center of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
Over the weeks of Black History Month, WCIA will show three, 30-minute programs dedicated to the stories of inspiring people like A.G. Gaston who shaped history in our communities and across the nation, with support from diverse community leaders like INB. The schedule follows:
Wed. 2/19 at 6:30pm
Wed. 2/26 at 6:30pm
Sat. 2/29 at 9:30pm
Future highlights later this year will focus on stories honoring women and celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.