African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
A.G. Gaston Motel
The A.G. Gaston Motel represents the ingenuity and vitality of the African American community in the city of Birmingham. Built as a place of luxury for minorities during the days of segregation, the Gaston stood at the center of several significant chapters of the Civil Rights movement.
Though the motel had fallen into disrepair after sitting vacant for more than 20 years, the future looks bright, as it was recently included in the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. The site will be rehabilitated and then annexed by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located nearby, with funds from the city of Birmingham and the National Park Service. The motel and institute will become the new Freedom Center, an educational hub that will focus on the civil rights movement and other cultural topics.
Built in 1954, the Gaston is a contributing structure in the nationally significant Birmingham Civil Rights National Register Historic District. Owned by the City of Birmingham, the project requires appropriate preservation-based planning to guide conservation efforts and a preservation-minded commercial developer to enter into a long-term, shared use agreement with Birmingham to renovate and manage the property. In collaboration with Birmingham, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and other local, state, and national partners, the National Trust is developing planning documents and real estate analysis, and exploring options for utilizing tax credits to protect the iconic cultural site for future generations to come.
The Gaston was at the epicenter of Birmingham’s civil rights protests and demonstrations. During the spring of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed in room 30 – a “war room” for the movement’s top leaders. This is where he made the decision to defy a court’s injunction and submit himself to being jailed to show solidarity with local protesters (A.G. Gaston paid the $160,000 bond to release Dr. King from jail). After a violent public conflict with Public Safety Commissioner Bull Conner, which triggered national outrage, Dr. King, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth announced a truce. On May 10, 1963, the press conference announcing the agreement with white business leaders and city officials was held in the Gaston's courtyard. In response to the agreement, a pair of bombs exploded near King’s room two days later.
As the site for high-level civil rights strategy meetings and events, the Gaston played an important role in the movement. It also stands as a historic monument to black entrepreneurship during the period of racial segregation.
Arthur George Gaston (1892-1996) was a pioneering African American entrepreneur who established several businesses during the city’s era of segregated facilities. His business empire included a bank (CFS Bancshares), radio stations, insurance company (Booker T. Washington Insurance Company), funeral home (Smith & Gaston Funeral Home), and construction firm (A. G. Gaston Construction Company). The dual themes of Civil Rights and entrepreneurship showcase the important connections between political activism and economic justice. The site was also listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a historic travel guide for African Americans looking for safe passage during an era of segregation, sundown towns, and a sharp increase in lynchings and other forms of hate crimes.
- Permanently protect the irreplaceable landmark from continued deterioration and vacancy
- Conduct preservation-based planning and identify an economically sustainable reuse that helps to revitalize the Civil Rights district
- Raise awareness of the need for a committed commercial developer to partner with Birmingham to preserve the Gaston
“Sites like this are critical to who we are as a nation, and are very, very worthy of recognition”Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia
Develop and adopt an economically sustainable reuse plan and tax credit project at the A. G. Gaston Motel to preserve its civil rights legacy and to help revitalize the historic district.
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