Adoring biography of a pioneering African-American businessman from his niece and grandniece.
Birmingham, Alabama, was a tough city to grow up in if you were a young black man in the early 1900s, but according to former TV anchorwoman Jenkins and her daughter Hines, A.G. Gaston managed to thrive during the majority of his 103 years there. He made it through tenth grade, worked at a variety of difficult jobs, including a stint in the iron mines, then served in WWI. Back home he found “few opportunities and ample disdain,” until opening his lunchbox one day in the mine prompted a business epiphany. His mother’s fried chicken was so good that fellow workers clamored to share it, so Gaston started a little lunch business. The authors go on to extol their forebear’s business acumen, noting that while some might label him an opportunist, he always remained true to his dictum: “find a need and fill it.” (Throughout, Jenkins and Hines pour out Gaston’s rules for success and homespun wisdom like ketchup on fries.) African-American community needs in Birmingham were certainly many, and few were being filled until Gaston came along. An indefatigable saver of his modest income, he started a small lending practice (charging 25 percent interest), then a funeral-insurance agency. During the Depression he bought script at 50 percent of its face value and started a motel and restaurant, amassing a sizable fortune. Civil-rights activists knew they could turn to Gaston when they needed money or a liaison with the white community. He was more like Booker T. Washington than Martin Luther King, more National Negro Business League than NAACP, but in tumultuous civil-rights-era Birmingham that was enough to get his house firebombed. His descendants’ loving portrait reveals the pivotal, if milder, role black business leaders played in the struggle for racial justice, but familial minutia blurs Gaston rather than adding to his focus.
A bit like an overlong home movie.