Arthur G. Gaston: A Titan’s First Step

The grandson of slaves, born into poverty in 1892 in the deep South, Arthur George Gaston died at the age of 103 with a fortune worth well over $130 million and a business empire spanning communications, real estate, and insurance. Gaston was, by any measure, a heroic figure whose wealth and influence bore comparison to that of J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. His first job, after serving in the celebrated all-black regiment during World War I, bound him to the near-slavery conditions of an Alabama coal mine—but even here Gaston saw hope and opportunity. This excerpt, taken from the book written by his niece and grandniece, chronicles that period when Gaston first took small steps into the role of entrepreneur that ultimately lead to the giant leap of BLACK ENTERPRISE naming him, on the eve of his 100th birthday, Entrepreneur of the Century. This February, we remember this legendary black titan.

After [World War I] many blacks were desperate for any employment. Even college graduates found themselves jobless. Arthur George Gaston didn’t even have a high school diploma. It was clear to him…that all that was left were the mines.

Shortly after 1920, A.G. Gaston moved his mother and grandmother [from Birmingham, Alabama] to Westfield, Alabama, to work in the mines at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Co., which was owned and operated by the U.S. Steel Corporation, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation, owned by millionaire financier J.P. Morgan. At the Westfield employment office he was automatically accepted into the mining corps and just as quickly approved for housing.

The endless parade of former soldiers he encountered who were unable to secure any other work was dispiriting. Every two weeks, he lined up along with them and watched as they opened their slender pay envelopes. Deductions were always made ahead of time for the milk, and the rent, and any other little thing charged at the [company] store, so that when payday finally came, often all that was left were a few nickels—which more often than not dissolved into a few drinks at the local bar. Something was wrong, Art[hur] thought, with a system that made it impossible for a man to get ahead. Though he was less of a spender than most men, he still found himself barely able to break even. His life was slipping away from him and he knew it. He tried to bolster his spirit by thinking of Booker T. Washington and how little he had suffered compared to this man. Arthur, at least, had been born free. He thought about [his maternal grandparents who had virtually raised him] and how they had liberated themselves from debt in a time when debt was the order of the day. Thinking of his grandparents and their industriousness made him realize that it was credit, no less than the mines themselves, that was killing him. The question was: How to escape it?

The answer came in the form of a lunch box. Though [his mother] Rosie had left