A.G. Gaston, 103; Parlayed $500 Into a Fortune
A.G. Gaston, a slave’s grandson who parlayed a $500 stake into a fortune of more than $30 million, died Friday in Birmingham, Ala., at age 103.
Gaston, who once bailed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail, had a stroke earlier this week and was hospitalized when he died.
“Essentially it was just old age,” said nephew Thomas Gardner, owner of Smith & Gaston Funeral Home, which his uncle founded.
Born in Demopolis, Ala., Gaston founded the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. in 1923 with $500 and began selling insurance policies to steelworkers. His empire grew to include Citizens Federal Savings and Loan, two radio stations, two cemeteries and other businesses.
Gaston, who never went beyond the 10th grade, worked past his 100th birthday and amassed a fortune once estimated at between $30 million and $40 million. He began each day by reading the Wall Street Journal. “That’s my bible,” he said in a 1992 interview.
Gaston was viewed as a moderate during the turmoil that engulfed Birmingham in the 1960s, serving as a liaison between the city’s white moderates and civil rights leaders.
In 1963, his palatial estate atop a hill six miles north of Birmingham was firebombed. The fire quickly went out, and no one was injured.
While he was not comfortable with King’s more confrontational protest tactics, Gaston paid $5,000 bond to free King from jail in 1963.
Gaston wrote a book called “Green Power,” making the point that money, not race, was the key to improvement. Proceeds from the book went to the A.G. Gaston Boys Club, which he founded in 1966.