The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) will open a new exhibit Tuesday, July 2nd honoring the legacy of A.G. Gaston (1892 – 1996), among the most successful African American businessmen and entrepreneurs in Alabama history.
On Sunday, June 30th , beginning at 3:00pm, an opening reception to preview the new exhibition “A.G. Gaston: The Man and His Legacy” will be held at the BCRI, featuring a book signing by Carol Jenkins, Emmy-award winning producer, journalist and author of Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. The reception is free and open to the public.
Gaston played a central role in Birmingham’s Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. His motel – the A.G. Gaston Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy stayed when they organized demonstrations in the Spring of 1963, which included King’s arrest and the Children’s Crusade. The motel, which is now part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, was subsequently bombed on May 12, 1963. Gaston’s home was also firebombed in September of 1963.
Despite the threats, Gaston ran multiple successful businesses employing hundreds if not thousands of African Americans in the Birmingham area.
The idea – A National Monument and the A.G. Gaston Exhibition
The idea for an exhibition about A.G. Gaston was initiated after a meeting with Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Preservation of Historic Places and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League to gain the support of the Urban League as they drafted a letter to President Barack Obama to urge him to sign the designation of the Birmingham Civil Rights District, which included the A.G. Gaston Motel, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and other key locations, to become a National Monument. They were successful when President Obama designated the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in January of 2017.
“At the time, I expressed to Andrea L. Taylor, BCRI CEO that I felt A.G. Gaston is a hero that Birmingham should own in a major way,” said Nicholas Perkins, President and CEO of Perkins Management Services Company and the presenting sponsor of BCRI’s A.G. Gaston exhibition.
“I felt that his presence, could be more prominently recognized at the Institute, because of his impact on establishing the African American middle class in Birmingham through his many vertically integrated companies that employed hundreds, if not thousands of people in the city as a result of his entrepreneurial efforts. He was able to help people buy homes and secure gainful employment. The importance, especially in that era, can’t be understated.”
The A.G. Gaston Exhibition Becomes a Reality
Shortly after the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument was established BCRI began to develop the plan and content for an A.G. Gaston exhibition.
“As an educational and archival resource for the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, the Institute is delighted to introduce a new generation to the life and legacy of A.G. Gaston, to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship among today’s youth in the ongoing quest for social and economic justice.” Andrea L. Taylor, President & CEO, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Gaston’s Legacy of Social Entrepreneurship
“To see an exhibit like this come to fruition means a great deal to me, because when you look across the condition of the African American community as a whole we see a need for more A.G. Gaston’s,” added Perkins, whose own company employs over 500 people throughout the South.
“There are significant issues in terms of the racial wealth and the need for social entrepreneurs. A.G. Gaston really is a shining example of what social entrepreneurship is and what social entrepreneurship can do for under-resourced and marginalized communities. And to see an exhibit like this come to fruition – we are hopeful that visitors to the Institute and National Monument will be as inspired to go out and not only build material wealth for their families but also supply gainful employment opportunities for communities to which they live.”
The Next Generation – a Catalyst for Future Entrepreneurs
For African American entrepreneurs, Gaston is a shining example to follow.
“It is a sense of relief, and the reason I share the word relief is because there is a lot of anxiety around the unknown of starting a business,” said Isaac Cooper, the youngest BCRI board member and CEO of IMC Financial Consulting, a Financial Services Company.
“When we look at A.G. Gaston as an example, and the businesses that he created and still exist, I’m excited about future entrepreneurs learning about what Gaston exemplified. It is going to have a catalytic response for minority entrepreneurs in general across the nation.”
Reception and Opening
The A.G. Gaston Exhibition reception on Sunday June 30, 3:00pm at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is free and open to the public. The exhibit which will be part of the museum tour, begins on July 2nd.