Wade on Birmingham

Books: Excerpt from Marie Sutton’s ‘The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham’


Marie Sutton - AG Gaston Motel in Birmingham

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Marie Sutton’s “The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham” [aff. link]. She is a writer with a passion for immortalizing the African-American experience, married to the Rev. James Sutton with two children, Simone and Stephen.

In this excerpt, Sutton shares the history of segregated Birmingham and the rise of entrepreneur A.G. Gaston.

• • •

Locked Out, but Creating a New Way

“I couldn’t understand why the color of your skin made you better than me. That didn’t make sense.”

— Brenda Faush, a native of Birmingham

Alabama’s scorching summer days do not discriminate. Beneath the merciless sun, there is neither black nor white, rich nor poor — the warmth oppresses all. From the pristine streets of Mountain Brook to the dusty roads of Acipco-Finley, the thick, humid air can be suffocating and the pavement like hot lava.

If your skin is brown, however, it doesn’t take long for a million little reminders — like needle-thin icicles — to prick you back into reality; not even the indiscriminate Alabama heat can thaw out cold hearts or melt away the blistering, blue knuckle winter of segregation.

During the 1950s — in the sweltering June, July and August months — a Negro child had to still any excitement at the sight of Kiddieland Park. Riding along the endless stretch of Third Avenue West in Birmingham, the fairgrounds could be spotted from the road. The smell of salty, buttered popcorn and sweet, airy cotton candy was a seductive lure. The bright, colorful Ferris wheel sliced through the skyline, and the grounds danced with spinning boxcars, mock airplane rides and a merry-go-round.

Kiddieland was an annual summer carnival that was created in June 1948 for area children. Described by the Birmingham News as a “miniature Fairyland,” it was touted as “welcome to all,” though it was understood that that meant everyone except Negroes. The fair featured Sunday concerts, “hillbilly” shows, a “pint-sized edition of the Southern Railway’s Southerner” train and advertisements that showed rosy-cheeked children drunk with glee. It was not until years later that blacks were allowed to come, but only on the last day when the stuffed toys were usually picked over and nearly gone; the vendors were packing up and the popcorn stale.

Ask a room full of blacks who grew up in Birmingham during that time, and only a scant few won’t mention how their memories were stained by not being allowed to attend the fair.

“I remember looking over there and knowing that I couldn’t go and not quite understanding why,” remembered Samuetta Hill Drew, who was a colored child in Birmingham during the 1950s.

Tamara Harris Johnson’s parents tried to shield her from the Kiddieland discussion, she said. Even though the street on which the fair sat was a main artery to downtown, her parents, and many others, found alternate routes so as not to explain why admission to the fair was more than a dime. It also required that your skin be white.

That was the way it was in Birmingham. If you were black, you were only given access to scraps of the American dream, the torn and tattered pieces, the chewed up and spit out ones. Jim Crow laws made sure of it.

City ordinances deemed it illegal for blacks and whites to play cards together or even enjoy movies collectively unless there was separate seating, entrances and exits. And the only way they could eat in the same room was if they were divided by a solid partition that reached at least 7 feet from the floor. Signs that read “whites only” hung on doorways and water fountains throughout the city. Even the telephone directories noted whether people or businesses were “C” or “Colored.”

At downtown department stores, blacks were not allowed to try on clothes. They had to guess their sizes, buy them off the rack and hope they would fit. If black customers needed new shoes, many would trace their feet on pieces of cardboard at home. Then, at the store, they would hold the board against the bottom soles until they found a match.

Even conventional elevators were off limits. Whites rode the ones in the main area, while the ones in the back were for “niggers and freight.”

At the same time, however, blacks built their own communities that were fortified with pride and sustained by unity in spite of outside forces. Smithfield in central Birmingham was the largest black middle-class community. It was populated with affluent and college-educated African Americans. Many were teachers, lawyers, musicians and doctors. They lived in large Colonial Revival–, Georgian-, Craftsman- or Bungalow-style homes, many of which were designed by Wallace Rayfield. He was the second formally educated and practicing African-American architect in the nation at the time and was also a Smithfield resident.

Blacks of every profession lived within blocks of one another, said George A. Washington, who grew up in the area. He remembers a laundry list of them within a stone’s throw, including the doctor who lived across the street and did house calls. “We had everything we needed,” he said.

Neighborhood children played on manicured lawns in a part of the city that seemed untouched by the crippling Jim Crow. That is, until the Ku Klux Klan planted the occasional bomb, blowing off sides of residences or leveling abodes to smoldering bits; enjoying the Smithfield community came at a price.

In 1947, acclaimed African-American civil rights attorney Arthur Davis Shores helped Samuel Matthews, a drill operator, file suit against the city for its racist zoning laws that restricted blacks in where they could live. Matthews had his sights set on living in the all-white North Smithfield. He became the first African-American to purchase a home in that area. On his first night there, however, his home was bombed.

Shores continued his fight against the zoning ordinances and, in 1950, successfully filed suit on behalf of Mary Means Monk. The age-old racist ordinance was declared invalid by Judge Clarence Mullins. It was a victory. That same night, though, Monk’s home was bombed. Pretty soon, the area got the nickname “Dynamite Hill.”

A few miles away, in North Birmingham, sat Collegeville and Acipco-Finley. Many blacks who lived there were blue-collar workers with cracked hands and soft hearts. They lived in an area that sprouted out of housing developed for the employees of Sloss-Sheffield Corporation, Southern Railroad, U.S. Pipe, Jim Walters Corporation and GAT X Tank Corporation. Instead of playing among a row of Colonial-style houses, the children in parts of the area played among railyards and old coal cars beneath gray skies laced with sulfur and where the whistle of passing trains filled the air.

They weren’t spared the hand of the Klan, either. Their homes, and even churches, were being bombed just like in Smithfield. Nothing a Negro owned or loved was ever not at the mercy of a dynamite-wielding Klansman.

Many of the residents of Collegeville, Smithfield and the like worked in and owned businesses in the historic Fourth Avenue Business District, which was a thriving, bustling area. Strict segregation laws kept blacks out of certain parts of downtown, and a line of demarcation outlined the area. East of Eighteenth Street North was for whites only, while west of the line toward Fifteenth Street was for blacks. Every inch of the Fourth Avenue District was populated with black-owned businesses like printing shops, restaurants, beauty salons and law firms. All the parties, shows and social club soirées were likely held somewhere in the area.

The seven-story Colored Masonic Temple was a showpiece in the district. The brick and limestone Renaissance Revival–style building was erected by the black-owned Windham Construction Company and featured a grand ballroom where concerts, dances and society events were held. When the white community invited a big-name African-American artist to perform at one of its venues, black promoters would often invite that same artist to stop by the Temple to perform for a crowd of their own people.

A few streets over, the Alabama Penny Savings Bank was a source of pride. It was the first black-owned and -operated financial institution in Birmingham and was housed in the six-story brick Pythian Temple that was also constructed by the Windham Company. The bank financed the construction of homes and churches of many blacks during that time, according to the National Historic Register.

During the day, the area swelled with people darting in and out of buildings, doing business, having lunch and making social calls. “It was the hub of the city for African Americans,” Drew remembered.

At night, the streets within the district were nearly busting with folks dressed in their Sunday best. People packed into the Carver and Famous Theaters, as well as countless restaurants, poolrooms and dancehalls, including the Little Savoy Café, which was built in the style of New York’s Harlem Savoy Ballroom. The upstairs kitchen produced an endless supply of mouthwatering chicken and steak dinners, and downstairs in the hall you could catch performances by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and many others.

“I used to love the way they dressed, like in a movie, like ‘Harlem Nights,’ ” said Washington, who as a young man would try to go inside the area nightspots. “We would go in, peep in the door and they would put us out.” During that time, the black middle class was growing at a rapid pace. The community roster grew long with names that would later be in history books like attorney Arthur Shores, famed disc jockey Shelley “The Playboy” Stewart and business mogul A.G. Gaston. Gaston was a short-statured, chocolate-brown man who had a penchant for dapper dress and a stern business sense.

“He always wore three-piece suits with a little watch chain,” wrote civil rights icon and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young in his book “An Easy Burden.”

“He was the very image of dignity and wealth,” Young wrote, “except for his brown skin.”

Gaston, who had only a 10th-grade education, made millions of dollars catering to the needs of blacks, a clientele that was often ignored by white business owners. He owned funeral homes, a bank, an insurance company and a radio station; hosted spelling bees for colored children; and founded a girls’ and boys’ club. He was known for servicing African Americans from the cradle to the grave and advertised his businesses as “strictly 100 percent Negro.”

“He was the most powerful man in Birmingham,” Washington said. “What he said was the rule of the day, and he generally got what he wanted.”

Gaston was born in a log cabin in Demopolis, Ala., on the Fourth of July 1892. His father, “Papa” as he was known, died seeking work with the Alabama Great Southern Railroad construction project, and his mother, Rosie, was a beloved domestic who cooked and cleaned for A.B. and Minnie Loveman, one of the most affluent white families in the area. The Lovemans owned the popular Loveman, Joseph and Loeb Department Stores.

Born a generation out of slavery, Gaston grew up knowing his place as a black man living in the South. He wrote in his biography, “Green Power”:

“Any ‘nigger’ who did not jump off the sidewalk when they came by was considered “biggity” by the whole community, and just not well brought up. Most of the civic leaders and professional men were members of the Klan … So, when as a boy I watched a lynching on the street corner, there was no doubt in my mind justice prevailed and that the punishment was surely deserved.”

The Jim Crow way of life did not totally cripple Gaston’s family, however. His mother at one time ran a catering business with clients who included some of Birmingham’s wealthiest white families. Gaston’s grandparents Joe and Idella were born slaves but, after being freed, became business owners who taught him a strong work ethic.

Gaston’s first business, down in Demopolis, was selling rides on his family’s tire swing. As a young boy, he charged the neighborhood kids a button to ride and ended up with a coffer full.

In 1905, at age 13, Gaston moved to Birmingham to be with his mother. She had moved earlier to help the Lovemans relocate to the city. The Lovemans lived in a two-story brick home on the exclusive Rhodes Circle. Gaston and his mother resided in the servants’ quarters a short walk away.

Rosie soon enrolled the young boy in the Tuggle Institute, a local boarding school for Negroes who were taught and cared for by Carrie “Granny” Tuggle. The school was located in the middle-class-populated Enon Ridge, which was in North Birmingham. Tuggle was a former slave who had a passion for training up young colored children. She exposed them to the teachings of Booker T. Washington, who was also a former slave turned educator, author and advisor to U.S. presidents. Washington was often a presence on the Tuggle campus and went on to be a major influence on Gaston. His book, “Up from Slavery,” was the first one Gaston read.

When Gaston was older, he began to lay the groundwork for an empire that was built by “filling a need” of the black community. Fresh from fighting the enemy in World War I and back home working among a corps of men in the Westfield mining village, he and his mother started selling her homemade lunches, many of which consisted of fried chicken, sweet potatoes and flaky biscuits. Then he began making loans to his spend-happy co-workers at a 25 percent interest, which didn’t bother him one bit. “In the first place, he was poor, too, and this was merely a way of working to better his own situation. Second, while he had sympathy for the men who were trapped in the mine system, they were not, by and large, his friends.”

After a while, Gaston noticed that many black families in his community lacked the means to give their loved ones proper burials. At that time, the mortality rate for blacks in the segregated South was abysmal, and many wanted the memorial services of their loved ones to be special, filled with the pomp and circumstance they never received in this life. A crop of swindlers would supposedly raise funds for dead relatives but were pocketing the profits, Gaston had discovered.

“It was a racket,” he was quoted as saying, “and I resented it.” Gaston wanted to remedy this, so he founded a burial society. Members paid him a 25-cent weekly premium for the head of the family and 10 cents for each additional member. In the event of their death, they got a first-class funeral.

Locals thought it was a great idea, and the premiums began to come in. But before Gaston could get started good, his first member, Mrs. Sara Emmons, died. He didn’t have enough for her funeral. But after much working, negotiating and even prayer, he was able to give the woman a dignified service.

“With a mixture of amazement, joy and relief, I thought, ‘Well, Brother Gaston, like it or not, it looks like you are in business,’ ” Gaston wrote.

Tight-fisted with his money and frugal to a fault, Gaston saved enough to expand his reach. After gradual success, he ended up with his own insurance company, then funeral home and next a chain of them. He opened a bank and construction company and even tried his hand at making his own soda.

His first wife and childhood sweetheart, the plump and pretty Creola Smith Gaston, died young right when he was on the cusp of launching his empire. Gaston married his second wife, the lively and beautiful Minnie, in 1943 on the front porch of her sister’s New York home. The Tuskegee graduate was a native of rural Lowndes County. She was the fourth of 15 children and was there by Gaston’s side as he grew his enterprises to empire status.

By 1951, Gaston had acquired the largest Negro cemetery in Birmingham, New Grace Hill Cemetery, and then Mason City Cemetery. “With the purchase of these sites, Gaston could now control every level of dying, from preparation to interment.”

But there was more to him than that, said Rev. Don Solomon, who worked for Gaston for many years. “Dr. Gaston was also a big church man,” Solomon, who is a local Baptist preacher, said. He was heavily involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and attended the historic St. John AME Church downtown.

In 1951, Gaston was invited to be the official AME Church delegate to the World Ecumenical Conference in Oxford, England. He was thrilled. The last time Gaston had been in Europe, he was a solider in the Army. At that time, the French embraced him and didn’t call him a “nigger” or give him limited or no access to their restaurants and stores.

In France, he was treated like a man. In France, he could walk the streets without jumping off the sidewalks when a white person strolled by. In France, it was clear, the white people respected his uniform regardless of his color; respected his allegiance to democracy and his willingness to fight for it. In France, it seemed anything was possible for a man like Arthur Gaston.

When Gaston returned back to Alabama after the war, however, he received the opposite reception in the stiff-necked South. He vowed to visit Europe again, and now he had his chance. The trip to England would prove important in Gaston’s legacy, as it would be there that he would stumble upon an idea that would expand his empire and also put him at the center of Birmingham’s fight for civil rights, whether he wanted it to or not.

• • •

Marie Sutton will participate in the 2015 Local Authors Expo and Book Fair, signing “The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham” and giving a talk. The free event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Central branch of the Birmingham Public Library [map]. 

She will also hold a 2-hour workshop called “Write Your Book in 2015!” at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 31 at the Homewood Public Library. Admission is $25, and registration is required.

“The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham” (November 2014, History Press)

Marie Sutton

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