Hidden History: A.G. Gaston leaves stamp on Birmingham through civil rights movement

Black History Month

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Everyone knows about the history of Kelly Ingram Park where demonstrators faced dogs and fire hoses in their fight for freedom.

Today, at the park’s entrance, the Four Spirits monument stands as a tribute to honor the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, which stands right across the street.

And just around the corner, hidden in plain sight, is the A.G. Gaston Motel.

“I had my high school football banquets in there, and even after I got to be an adult, I occasionally came to the lounge,'” said Bob Dickerson, Executive Director at the Birmingham Resource Center.

Gaston hired Dickerson to work at his bank, Citizens Federal, in 1984.

“I wasn’t an important part of his life and his business, but he was such a vital part of mine,” Dickerson said.

When Gaston opened the motel in 1954, it was a time of deep segregation in the South. For years, it was the only place that black entertainers and black visitors could stay in Birmingham.

“This was the place you think about history, world history was made here,” Dickerson said. “You’ve got to think about the meetings there, you’ve got to think about the courage folks had when they were in these rooms and knowing folks that day didn’t have a problem setting off a few sticks of dynamite.”

A pair of bombs exploded at the motel on May 11, 1963, destroying part of the motel. The incident occurred two days after the big three, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy, announced a truce with white city leaders and the business community to end a violent showdown between demonstrators and police.

“They bombed the motel, as they bombed a lot of stuff,” Dickerson said. “But you know that didn’t stop anything when you really think about it. Now, some people, the four little girls lost their lives and other people lost their lives, but the movement didn’t stop.”

The A.G. Gaston motel was ground zero for civil rights protests and demonstrations. Room 30 was the war room for the movement, and it also served as King’s headquarters when he was here in Birmingham.

Gaston’s role in the movement can’t be minimized as blacks enjoyed plush amenities at his motel, and he provided jobs and changed lives with the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls club.

“Not only is the shining example of philanthropy the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls club, but he sent a lot of kids to college and paid tuition and granted scholarships out of his own funds,” Dickerson said.

Gaston’s fingerprints and footprints are throughout Birmingham, especially the Civil Rights District, where his bank stood, Booker T. Washington insurance company and his business college, which is still standing. The motel is crumbling, shattered and in disrepair, but, finally, it’s slated for renovations as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

“I’m really encouraged about what’s going to happen,” Dickerson said. “It’s sad to see it in disrepair, but it’s still standing and I think we have to take some solace and happiness in that.”

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