One of the most common pleas heard around the pay wagon was a solicitation for money to cover the burial costs of a recently deceased individual. The scheme was one run by missionaries and “slicksters” alike, and it was one with a high rate of return. In the black communities of the 1920s, funeral rites were both extremely important and rarely provided for financially. They were a person’s last link with the world and demanded a certain propriety. But funerals were also expensive, costing a minimum of a $100–far more than the average (or even above-average) black person made in a month. Almost no one had the financial wherewithal to pay for a proper burial, so the task of raising money fell to any individual who took it upon him- or herself to go out calling for funds.…
The widespread poverty of the area made blacks all the more susceptible to the ploys of those trying to hustle them out of their money for supposed burials. It was impossible to know who was telling the truth and was in need, and who was just filling their own purse with the proceeds. Furthermore, many of the miners were likely moved by the knowledge that they could just as easily be in a similar situation: With death a persistent threat, a mine worker had to wonder if it wouldn’t be his wife (or mother or sister) out there begging for money to bury him by the next payday.
Burial insurance was not unheard of at the time, but it was an unpopular option among blacks due to the bureaucracy involved in dealing with any white-owned corporation and difficulty blacks had in actually obtaining it. Few insurance companies were willing to cover black clients–not only because of outright racial discrimination, but because they were a bad business risk: Their mortality rate was appreciably higher, in every age group, than their white counterpart. And black miners died at an even higher rate than most.…
It occurred to him, as he watched yet another man part with his money to pay for a funeral of someone who was probably not even dead, that things didn’t have to be this way. Black people needed to have a way of burying their own and knowing where their money was going.… Here, finally, was something black people needed and Arthur was certain he could provide: a society that would take care of their burial costs.
In 1923 A.G. Gaston organized the Booker T. Washington Burial Society, but in 1932, he incorporated the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company with his father-in-law, Dad Smith, selling and collecting small premiums door-to-door. It would become the largest black-owned insurance company in Alabama.
Man of the Century
In the June 1992 issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE, we named A.G. Gaston our Entrepreneur of the Century. In a city that symbolized hateful racial oppression, Gaston managed to build an empire around the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co., a company he launched in 1932. At the time of our naming him