Remembering Arthur G. Gaston: A Titan’s First Step

How an unknown coal miner from birmingham, alabama,became the 20th century's preeminent entreprenuer.

the recipient of the greatest award this magazine could confer on an entrepreneur, BTW had secured a position on the BE Insurance list with close to $40 million in assets. (Today, The Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. ranks No. 4 on the BE INSURANCE COMPANIES list with $54 million in assets.) Gaston and a group of investors started Citizens Federal Savings Bank, a savings and loan association, after raising $350,000 in 1957. Other divisions of Gaston’s empire included, at the time, the Booker T. Washington Business College, the A.G. Gaston Construction Co., the A.G. Gaston Home for Senior Citizens, Citizens Drugstore, Smith & Gaston Funeral Directors Inc., New Grace Hill Cemeteries Inc., Zion Memorial Gardens & Mausoleum, Vulcan Realty & Investment Co. Inc., and the Booker T. Washington Broadcasting Service Inc., which included radio programming for R&B and gospel. These companies under the BTW umbrella had more than $24 million in revenue in 1991.

On the eve of his 100th birthday, in January 1992, Gaston suffered a stroke, but it didn’t stop his drive “to be where the action” was. He was back at his desk four weeks later. This drive carried the son of a domestic worker (and the grandson of former slaves) from the poverty of rural Alabama to the top of a financial empire worth millions. It was his sheer determination that made A.G. Gaston BLACK ENTERPRISE’s Entrepreneur of the Century.

The A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award
Since our inaugural BLACK ENTERPRISE Entrepreneurs Awards, this magazine has honored seven outstanding entrepreneurs with the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award. This award reco
gnizes the entrepreneurial spirit and the guiding light of an individual who has established an extended and consistently distinguished record of business success. And when we celebrated our 25th annual report on black businesses in 1997, BLACK ENTERPRISE took the unusual step of honoring six CEOs and founders of companies that had appeared on the BE 100s list for each of those 25 years. There have been seven recipients in total.

Over the past seven years since the inception of the Entrepreneurs Awards, many of the A.G. Gaston recipients have either retired or transformed their businesses, at the time of their award they were powerful leaders of some of BE’s largest black-owned companies. These recipients were:

  • In 1996, Thomas J. Burrell, president & CEO of Burrell Communications Group
  • In 1997, five distinguished entrepreneurs received the award: John H. Johnson, chairman & CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. Inc.; Herman J. Russell, chairman of H.J. Russell & Co.; Ed Lewis, CEO, and Clarence Smith, president, of Essence Communications Inc.; Nathan C. Conyers, president & CEO of Conyers Riverside Ford Inc.; and Earl G. Graves Sr., chairman & CEO of Earl G. Graves Ltd.
  • In 1998, Percy E. Sutton, chairman emeritus, of Inner City Broadcasting
  • In 1999, Comer J. Cottrell Jr., chairman & CEO of Pro-Line Corp.
  • In 2000, Jesse Hill, retired president & CEO, Atlanta Life Insurance Co.
  • In 2001, Berry Gordy, founder of Motown
  • Times;”>In 2002, George & Joan Johnson, founders of Johnson Products Co. Inc.
  • In 2003, John W. Barfield, chairman emeritus, The BartechGroup Inc.

From Black Titan by Carol Jenkins & Elizabeth Gardner Hines. Copyright © 2004 by Carol Jenkins& Elizabeth Gardner Hines. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprintof The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

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