A.G. Gaston: From Log Cabin To Funeral Home Mogul Arthur George Gaston overcame his humble beginnings to become a multimillionaire in the funeral home business and a huge financial backer of the civil rights movement. Biographer Suzanne Smith explains Gaston's lasting legacy on black entrepreneurship in America.

A.G. Gaston: From Log Cabin To Funeral Home Mogul

A.G. Gaston: From Log Cabin To Funeral Home Mogul

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Businessman A. G. Gaston played a key role in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala. He died in 1996 at the age of 103. Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library hide caption

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Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library

Arthur George (A.G.) Gaston played a little-noticed role in history. An African-American man born in a log cabin in Demopolis, Ala., in 1892, he defied the social climate of the times to become a business leader, and later, a behind-the-scenes political leader at a critical time in civil rights history.

Buttons To Burials

Historian Suzanne Smith, author of To Serve the Living, has traced Gaston's career from his humble roots. The unlikely entrepreneur would eventually make millions of dollars, but Smith tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that as a child growing up in Demopolis, Gaston started out working with simpler currency.

"His first business was selling rides on a tree swing in his grandparent's backyard," Smith says. "His friends would bring buttons."

As a young boy, Gaston moved to Birmingham with his mother. The city was growing as an industrial center, so as a teen, Gaston was able to find work at Tennessee Coal and Iron Company -- a local mining outfit. It was there, Smith explains, that Gaston's entrepreneurial career actually began.

"While he's on the job, he notices that one of the biggest needs in the black community is a fine funeral when you die." Smith says. "And he decides he's going to start his own burial society."

The society asked members to pay 25 cents to Gaston each week. These payments would guarantee members a fine burial upon death, but within three weeks of beginning his project, a member of the society passed away. With just $10 in premiums and a looming $100 in funeral costs, Gaston suddenly had his first business problem: "He almost completely falls apart at the beginning," Smith says.

To Serve the Living
To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death
By Suzanne E. Smith
Hardcover, 288 pages
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
List Price: $29.95

Read An Excerpt

But he was quick to find a solution. Gaston bargained with a Birmingham funeral director for installment payments, and later admitted his mistake to the local minister. Ultimately, this misstep helped boost the success of his venture.

"At the funeral, the minister says, 'From now on everyone in this town is gonna pay for this society, because Gaston's got a vision,' " Smith says. "And that’s how he starts his fortune."

Political Capital

During the civil rights era, black funeral directors often used their wealth to serve as community leaders and political leaders, Smith says. Gaston was no exception.

"He goes to the local bank and says, I'm going to take my millions of dollars out of your bank unless you get rid of those segregated water fountains in the lobby."

Gaston was a multimillionaire by the middle of the 20th century. He ran an insurance company and his funeral home business -- Smith and Gaston -- which by then had 13 branches in Alabama. He later opened his own savings and loan, a business college, and his own motel -- the Gaston motel.

He'd achieved a phenomenal degree of success for an African-American man in the 20th century, Smith says, and was therefore interested in advancing other African-Americans economically.

'Uncle Tom'

Gaston would often provide financial backing for the civil rights movement, even when he did not entirely agree with its way of doing things.

"He's politically somewhat conservative -- he's not confrontational, he's not considered a radical," Smith says.

So in 1963, when Martin Luther King came to Birmingham as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Gaston offered ample help, but struggled to put his differences aside completely.

"Gaston welcomes them and allows them to stay at the Gaston Motel, but he's also not agreeing, again, with their strategies," Smith says. "He's negotiating with the white business leaders of Birmingham to try to get them to come to the table with the radicals, but he doesn't want a lot of protest."

Gaston tried to warn King of the negative consequences that can come of protest: "They were in the Gaston motel, and A.G. Gaston turned to King and said: 'Don’t go out and break that injunction against marching. I don't want you to get arrested.' "

King did get arrested that day, and would get arrested several more times throughout the Birmingham campaign. Gaston bailed him out for $160,000 -- but that turned out to be a worthwhile price.

"It was, in the end, a smart move, because it did calm the waters, as Gaston hoped," Smith says. "Within a few weeks, the negotiations reached an agreement; the Birmingham campaign ended within a week or so."

Some of the more radical civil rights leaders called Gaston 'Uncle Tom.'

"He said that if wanting to spare children and save lives, bring peace, was Uncle Tom-ism, then I wanted to be a Super Uncle Tom." Smith says.

According to Smith, Gaston believed that negotiation could operate without confrontation. This conflict between idealism and pragmatism was present throughout his life during the civil rights movement.

"He understood that there was a way that the black community could empower itself economically," Smith says. "But it involved a lot of careful maneuvering with the white power structure in the city."

Suzanne E. Smith is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. George Mason University hide caption

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George Mason University

Suzanne E. Smith is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit.

George Mason University

Gaston was as pioneering in fighting segregation as he was in building businesses, but his unique contributions have received little attention from historians.

"In general, entrepreneurship has not been incorporated enough in civil rights history," Smith says.

Since integration, A.G. Gaston's business legacy has all but disappeared; all of his enterprises, other than his funeral home, have closed. For present-day African-Americans, Smith says, few stories of entrepreneurship are being written in the first place.

"A lot of black entrepreneurs are really fighting today to maintain their competitiveness. I think if Gaston were alive today, he'd be somewhat sad about that," Smith says. "Until his death, he wanted to believe that African- Americans would maintain a certain loyalty to black entrepreneurs."

Excerpt: 'To Serve The Living'

To Serve the Living
To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death
By Suzanne E. Smith
Hardcover, 288 pages
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
List Price: $29.95

From Hush Harbors to Funeral Parlors

A cold mist hovered in the air and rain started to fall as twenty-eight weary fugitive slaves gathered on the banks of the Ohio River to contemplate the next obstacle on their perilous journey on the Underground Railroad. The husbands, wives, children, and one young mother carrying a newborn all came from the same neighborhood in Kentucky and had worked odd jobs to accumulate a small amount of money to pay someone to guide them to freedom. All of their hopes rested with the skills of their conductor, John Fairfield, a curious and somewhat controversial character. A white Virginian by birth, Fairfield had spent most of his life in the South but hated slavery. His Southern background helped him pose among other whites as a proslavery advocate while he worked surreptitiously to locate slaves who needed help escaping to freedom. Among his cohorts in the Underground Railroad, Fairfield was known as "devoid of moral principle, but a true friend to the poor slave." On this damp evening as his charges collected themselves at the edge of the river near Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Fairfield quickly had to devise a plan to get all of them across the river and on their way to Cincinnati, which was another twenty miles north.

Fairfield brought the group to this particular spot on the river, near the mouth of the Big Miami, because he knew he might find some skiffs tied to the bank. Within a few minutes, Fairfield found three small boats and broke them free of their moorings. When later asked if he had any qualms about this act of larceny, Fairfield simply replied, "No; slaves are stolen property, and it is no harm to steal boats or anything else that will help them gain their liberty." After he dragged the skiffs over to the fugitive slaves, they all crowded onto the three rather fragile vessels and began their voyage. The overloaded and rickety boats almost immediately began to take on water. When the skiff carrying Fairfield started to sink only a few yards from the Ohio shore, he jumped out onto a sandbar and found himself in water two to three feet deep. As he attempted to drag the boat to land, Fairfield began to sink in the mud and quicksand. The others jumped in to help him, and they all ended up wading to the shore. The muddy journey left everyone soaked to the skin, and some lost their shoes in the struggle.

Finally on the Ohio riverbank, Fairfield tried to get his bearings, as he needed to hide the large -- and now very conspicuously disheveled -- group while he figured out how he might navigate them through the next passage of their journey. Although they were all exhausted and chilled from the rain, the fugitives followed Fairfield's instructions to hide in the ravines outside of Mill Creek while he went to get help. Fairfield, who had many contacts in the Underground Railroad, went to John Hatfield, "a worthy colored man, a deacon in the Zion Baptist Church... a great friend to the fugitives -- one who had often sheltered them under his roof and aided them in every way he could." Once Hatfield understood the dire situation of the runaway slaves, he sent a messenger to Levi Coffin, the reputed "President of the Underground Railroad," to ask for assistance. Coffin quickly decided that the best way to move the fugitives through the area was to stage a mock funeral procession. In his own words, Coffin recounted the drama:

Several plans were suggested, but none seemed practicable. At last I suggested that some one should go immediately to a certain German livery stable in the city and hire two coaches, and that several colored men should go out in buggies and take the women and children from their hiding-places, then that the coaches and buggies should form a procession as if going to a funeral, and march solemnly along the road leading to Cumminsville, on the west side of Mill Creek. In the western part of Cumminsville was the Methodist Episcopal burying ground, where a certain lot of ground had been set apart for the use of the colored people. They should pass this and continue on the Colerain pike till they reached a right-hand road leading to College Hill. At the latter place they would find a few colored families, living in the outskirts of the village, and could take refuge among them... We knew we must act quickly and with discretion, for the fugitives were in a very unsafe position, and in great danger of being discovered and captured by the police, who were always on the alert for runaway slaves.

Coffin's plan worked quite well, and the escapees, with provisions from Hatfield's black neighborhood, were able to make it through to College Hill. One sad footnote haunted the story, however, as the smallest fugitive, the one infant, died during the mock funeral procession. The baby apparently had fallen ill during the cold, wet escape across the river. The child's mother had wrapped the infant tightly in blankets to muffle its cries. When they finally reached their destination, she was stunned to discover that her baby, whom she had thought was just sleeping, had passed away. The group quickly but respectfully buried the child in the Methodist Episcopal cemetery and moved on.

This evocative story highlights the profound relationship that African Americans have always had to death and the funeral experience. During slavery, from its beginnings in the transatlantic slave trade through the antebellum period, death was often imagined as the ultimate "freedom" from a life of oppression. When African slaves first began arriving in the New World, many believed that death was a way for their spirits to return home to Africa. In this account from the Underground Railroad, the mock funeral procession acted as a protective façade that literally conveyed the enslaved African Americans to their freedom. Yet in the loss of the infant it also acknowledged that the specter of actual death was ever present. Throughout African American history, death and funerals have been inextricably intertwined with life and freedom.

Excerpted from To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death by Suzanne E. Smith Copyright 2010 by Suzanne E. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Harvard University Press.