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. Against the backdrop of segregation, the Gaston served as a place of luxury for African Americans traveling across the country, and stood witness to several chapters of the Civil Rights movement.
After the motel sat vacant for more than two decades, the National Trust for Historic Preservation worked diligently alongside the City of Birmingham to call national attention to the preservation needs of the Gaston. With urgency and intention, the National Trust listed the Gaston on its 2015 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List. That same year, the City of Birmingham invested $10 million to the restoration of the historic motel, partnering with the National Trust to develop an economically sustainable reuse plan for the site that leveraged historic tax credits.
Along with naming the Gaston a National Treasure in 2016, the Trust also partnered with the City to co-develop the March on Birmingham’s grassroots advocacy event which galvanized more than 700 community members and supporters around the site’s restoration. The National Trust also advocated for the passage of the 2017 Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument designation and today, continues to provide support by way of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
In June 2022, following the years-long restoration effort, the City of Birmingham announced the restoration of the Gaston Motel at a ribbon cutting ceremony alongside Rep. Terri Sewell (AL-7), Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of Birmingham Randall Woodfin, and the National Park Service. Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Brent Leggs also shared a few remarks on behalf of the National Trust:
“The National Trust is proud to support communities like Birmingham that are revolutionizing preservation practice. These historic sites bring forward a diverse and inclusive national narrative that plays a crucial role in redefining our collective history and, meaningfully, expanding the preservation movement in equitable ways. This innovation in practice helps us all make amends and walk toward a new era of justice.”
The Significance of the A.G. Gaston Motel
Built in 1954, the Gaston is a contributing structure in the nationally significant Birmingham Civil Rights National Register Historic District. 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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