Book Review February 2004
Reviewed by Ann Brown
Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire, by Carol Jenkins and Elizabeth Gardner Hines, is more than a story about an African-American entrepreneur whose wealth and influence have been likened to that of J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.
It’s a book of life lessons: of survival, of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds at a time of overt racial hatred and bigotry, of pleasure in doing for others.
Sure, this grandson of slaves, who was born into poverty in 1892 in racially segregated Demopolis, Ala., and who worked as a youngster in the iron mines, became one of this country’s great businessmen. What’s more striking, however, is that he also became a great civic leader and supporter of civil rights.
Gaston had a knack for discerning opportunities to meet the needs of “our people,” and he took advantage of those opportunities with gusto. With just a 10th grade education, he started his business empire in 1923 after a stint in the military’s all-Black regiment during World War I. He founded the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. in Birmingham with just $500. He targeted his business by selling insurance to steel workers. His business grew and he diversified, buying two radio stations, two cemeteries, and the Citizens Federal Savings Bank. He also founded a construction firm and a home for senior citizens. All totaled, his businesses in those early days were worth more than $34 million.
Gaston enjoyed the trappings of wealth, but he realized that he wanted to use his money to help the powerless. All of his businesses were designed to provide local citizens with the opportunities and benefits that were denied them under the social policies of the time. He also wanted to give opportunities to young people. To that end, he founded the A.G. Gaston Boys Club and served on the board of directors of the Boys Club of America. Striving to improve the lives of the oppressed, he wielded local political clout by backing various politicians and local leaders. It was he, in fact, who bailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail once in Birmingham after King was arrested for marching without a permit.
Gaston, who was quick to give money to civil rights causes and leaders, was often a liaison between the white and Black communities, a fact that did not sit well with everyone. In fact, at one point his house was firebombed. He was awarded honorary degrees by six institutions of higher learning, and traveled the world lecturing on civil rights and civic duty. When he decided to retire, he offered his 350 employees a chance to acquire his nine companies at prices well below their market value. Gaston died at the age of 104 in 1996 with a fortune of more than $130 million and a business empire spanning communications, real estate, and insurance. At the time of his death, he was one of the wealthiest African-Americans, if not the wealthiest.
Jenkins and Hines do an outstanding job of bringing to light the life of this incredible man whom many people, especially Blacks, have never heard of. The authors have an inside track: Jenkins is Gaston’s niece and Hines is his grandniece. Jenkins, an Emmy Award-winning television journalist who was an anchor and correspondent at WNBC-TV in New York for nearly 25 years, heads her own production company in New York. Hines, a writer, is her daughter.
Peppered with Gaston’s homespun folk sayings, Black Titan has a homey feel. The authors endear Gaston to you. Take the story of his first business idea. Upon returning home from the war, Gaston found few good job opportunities. He was forced to take a job in the mines, but yearned to do better. One day, he opened his lunch box and unleashed the mouthwatering aroma of fired chicken that his mother had packed for him. All his co-workers wanted a piece. Gaston soon launched a small business selling lunches to fellow miners. From that moment on, Gaston lived by the business motto: “Find a need and fill it.”
From this story and more you get a real sense of who A. G. Gaston was and what he was all about. Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire not only will inspire business-minded individuals but also anyone who wants to improve their life and the lives of others.