A.G. Gaston: Early African American Entrepreneur and Activist

A.G. Gaston. Photo from NPR

The recurring breakthroughs in technology and opportunity sometimes make it easy to ignore history. Yet the entrepreneurial spirit that many hustlers now embrace was just as prevalent in past times.  NPR highlights African American trailblazer Arthur George (A.G.) Gaston, a business visionary and contributor to the civil rights movement.

Gaston achieved a fantastic level of success as an African American in the 20th century according to Suzanne E. Smith, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit.

“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,” she says. “Until his death, he wanted to believe that African- Americans would maintain a certain loyalty to black entrepreneurs.”

Gaston became a  multimillionaire by the middle of the 20th century through several businesses, including an insurance company, a funeral home business, a savings and loan, and a motel. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at the Gaston Motel during his organizing in Birmingham–Gaston bailed him out of jail to the tune of $160,000 when the civil rights leader was later arrested.

A.G. Gaston’s ventures are all closed in the present day, with the exception of his funeral home. Still, the man’s business success–despite labeling by some as an ‘Uncle Tom’–is a powerful story of perseverance that is rarely given mention.

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

Hustletown readers: Check out the full story and audio here. What past entrepreneurs have inspired you? Tell us in the comments section below!

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