What I did any man can do-if he has
willpower, determination and a plan.
The Iron Mines
Pick any sweltering day in the year 1919. On the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, in a small mining village, hundreds of black men are at work, side by side. The old-fashioned broiler that is the Alabama sun beats down hard upon them, and to a man, each is afloat in his own sweat. In the ground beneath their feet, men less lucky than they swim in the blackness of the pits. Thousands of pounds of iron will emerge as a result of their labor; and thousands of men will die in its pursuit.
Some of the men you see and cannot see are convicts, leased out by the state to bring in revenues; some are war veterans, newly returned to face few opportunities and ample disdain. Nevertheless, one of these men, bruised like all the others by the demands of his working life, is on the verge of taking his first step in the direction of becoming a bona fide millionaire-one hundred times over.
Before this man is through, he will serve as an adviser to President John Kennedy. He will play a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement. One day he will even be likened to the great giants of American industry-Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie among them. Like just about every other black man in Alabama in the early part of the twentieth century, A. G. Gaston started with next to nothing: His mother was a cook in the kitchen of a prominent white family; he never had more than a tenth-grade education. After the war he had taken his position in the mines as a means of survival-only to emerge utterly determined that his life was worth more than what the mines were offering.
That determination was a kind of miracle given the context in which Gaston had been raised. And that miracle is the foundation of the story you are about to hear.
The Olive and Vine Company
In order to appreciate A. G. Gaston and his extraordinary success against all odds, we must first understand the world as he knew it.
Gaston was born in the tiny, western Alabama town of Demopolis. Situated halfway between Montgomery, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, Demopolis boasts a long and infamous history. The town is located at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers, used as water highways by Native peoples, early explorers, traders, and settlers. Lodged within the geographic triangle of Tuscaloosa to the north, Mobile to the south, and Montgomery to the east, Demopolis sits dead center in what came to be known as the Black Belt of southern agriculture-as much for the darkness of the soil as for the color of the people who tended it.
President Andrew Jackson, who would launch a meticulous removal of Native American inhabitants from their lands during his administration, had actually started his sweep years before as a militiaman. In the case of Demopolis and its environs, it was the Choctaws who were forced to relocate in 1816. The following year the land was granted by the U.S. Congress to a group of aristocratic exiles who had been banished from France after the revolution for their allegiance to France's fallen dictator Napoléon Bonaparte.
The exiles named their new home Demopolis-"city of the people"-and re-created there a French village called Aingleville. They had come with the intention of coaxing groves of olives and grapes from the region's fertile soil, founding the Olive and Vine Colony toward this end. However, the combination of unsuitable growing conditions for their preferred crops and the inexperience on the part of the settlers resulted in a magnificent failure in production. According to legend, the exiles were comically unprepared for rural life; men and women alike were said to tend to their farming duties in full court attire. Not a few of the exiles quickly succumbed to the harshness of the agricultural regime, and many of those who survived fled back to Paris once amnesty had been granted to them by the new, more reasonable King Louis Philippe.
Not all who had come to Demopolis from France, however, died or left immediately, and those who remained-among them Napoléon's former aide-de-camp, General Lefebvre-Desnouettes-laid roots deep in the Alabama soil. The area's few remaining Choctaw Indians (the very tribe whose families had been displaced by the arrival of the French) helped educate the settlers as to which crops would thrive on the land, and shared their own food with the newcomers to protect them from starvation.
As the decade of the 1820s dawned, much of the area's French influence had been amalgamated into the wider culture of the region. With many exiles departed, the land that made up the newly formed Marengo County (977 square miles, in which Demopolis is included) came into the hands of the cotton farmers who had begun to make their fortunes across the South-in large part through slave labor. The cotton farmers dug in their heels and accomplished what, by and large, the French could not: They coaxed riches from the soil, tilling the canebrakes that surrounded the municipality and producing a viable living out of King Cotton. Of course, the cotton farmers had one crucial advantage over the French: Most had brought their slaves with them.
The Columbian World's Fair and the State of Black America, 1893
If you had asked A. G. Gaston when his birthday was he would have told you, with pride, that it was the Fourth of July, the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If you'd asked him to prove it, he couldn't have: Formal records of rural black births were rarely kept before the middle of the twentieth century. But the date, whether by true accident of birth or by choice, reflected Gaston's lifelong identification as a proud American. He was simply unshakable on the subject. And while many other blacks had adopted the Fourth as their own date of birth for its reverberations on the themes of liberty and freedom, few would buy so fully into those ideals as A. G. Gaston did.
At the time of Gaston's birth in 1892, the United States had just witnessed an unprecedented industrial expansion, a true revolution. Machines had been invented that changed the idea of work; transcontinental railroads shrank distances and the time it took to cross them. Partly as a result, great fortunes had been tallied. The American corporation, only recently invented, had been accorded almost human rights by the government, with "robber barons" Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan amassing unprecedented concentrations of wealth and indulging in conspicuous displays of it. Indeed, the country at large seemed to approve of-even glorify as heroic-the self-made man, with "the love of money and success permeat[ing] all ranks of society, not just the top." By 1892 the idea of competition was firmly embedded in the American psyche: social Darwinism, it was called; survival of the fittest.
Survival was indeed in question for many in America. The year of A. G. Gaston's birth saw 165 black men, women, and children lynched in America-the most recorded in a single year. One year later, the country would suffer a serious financial panic, an economic downturn that would last for five years and put three million of the country's fifteen million workers out of jobs. Thousands, known as "the armies of despair," would descend on Washington to protest the state of the nation's economy; six hundred banks, fifty-six railroads, and fifteen thousand companies would eventually go bankrupt.
That same year, a world's fair took place in Chicago that revealed much about the status of blacks in this newly revolutionized America. Organized to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the continent, the fair turned out to be so lavish an undertaking that it was forced to open a year later than originally planned. Forty thousand laborers and twenty-eight million dollars later, the crowds poured in to examine more than sixty-five thousand exhibits, each representing one or another of America's great contributions to the world since 1492. It was here that Scott Joplin first played his ragtime; Thomas Edison was on hand to demonstrate the wonders of electricity. In total, more than twenty-seven million people-nearly a quarter of the country's total population at the time-attended the event.
Of the sixty-five thousand exhibits on view, not one had anything to do with black America. Not that ideas hadn't been presented: Anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, along with many other blacks, had appealed-unsuccessfully-to the boards assembling the fair, arguing that at least one exhibit celebrating black contributions should be allowed in the showcase. Event organizers were, however, unmoved. Their one concession was to set aside one day, August 25, 1893, as Colored American Day: Blacks would be allowed free admission to the fair and a slice of watermelon each. In protest, Wells organized and distributed hundreds of pamphlets detailing the plethora of black accomplishments that had been left out of the fair's version of American history, including Elijah "the real" McCoy's steam engine lubricators, Norbert Rillieux's sugar refining process, Jan Matzeliger's shoe lasting machine (which enabled soles to be attached to shoes in less than a minute), Granville Woods's steam boiler, electric railway, and telephone transmitter, and Louis Latimer's improvements on both the telephone and the lightbulb. Blacks, Wells proclaimed, had greatly contributed to the very revolution in American life the fair purported to celebrate: transportation, communication, light. Meanwhile, the most enduring black image to surface from the fair itself was a rendering of a woman named Nancy Green-better known to most Americans as Aunt Jemima.
Whatever had changed in America's conception of itself as a capitalist entity, what had not changed was where it figured its black citizens belonged in that equation. Black achievement, the Columbian World's Fair announced, not only didn't matter-it didn't exist.
The Rise of King Cotton
A. G. Gaston's maternal grandparents, Joe and Idella Gaston, had both been slaves in Marengo County. Art, as he was called as a boy, grew up under their watchful eyes. While he had missed being born into legal enslavement by about thirty years, the effects of slavery were still palpable throughout his childhood. In his autobiography, Gaston would intimate that the significance of this past loomed large, shaping his daily life both practically and psychologically. In fact, it was likely as a direct result of slavery-as it was connected to the cotton trade-that Arthur Gaston came to be born in Demopolis at all.
Cotton first began to spread its dominating hand across the southern regions of the United States in and around the decade of the 1790s. Prior to this, throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries, tobacco and rice formed the backbone of commercial agriculture in the U.S., with the production of indigo also playing a small role. But the increasing demand for and profitability of cotton spurred landowners to attempt to push production farther inland and southward, where "the particular combination of soils, temperature patterns, rainfall and growing season . . . [were] uniquely suited for production of the varieties of cotton most in demand."
The development of Eli Whitney's cotton gin in 1793, which revolutionized the cleaning and shucking of the cotton boll, played a pivotal role in the swell of cotton production throughout the South. By mechanically separating the cottonseed from its fiber, the gin was able to increase productivity up to fiftyfold. Whereas before the gin a slave might be expected to clean about a pound of cotton a day, after its invention that figure rose to fifty pounds a day. This increase in salable product in turn amplified the demand for a workforce capable of transferring the raw product out of the field and into the warehouse. In time, this backbreaking work too would come to be carried out by machines. But in the late eighteenth century, it was a job that remained in the hands of black workers ensnared in the system of slavery.
Of course, slavery in America had far preceded the shift of cotton to the role of principal regional resource; nevertheless, the rise of cotton growing farms toward the end of the eighteenth century did spur a similar rise in the economic viability of maintaining a slave population. By the 1820s America had become the world's leading cotton producer, and in this ripe economic environment, slaves became wealth in and of themselves. Historian Gavin Wright suggests that by 1850, "The average slave-owner was more than five times as wealthy as the average Northerner, more than ten times as wealthy as the average non-slaveholding Southern farmer. A man who owned two slaves and nothing else was as rich as the average man in the North." Slavery had turned black labor, according to W. E. B. DuBois, into "the foundation stone not only of the southern social structure, but of northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a worldwide scale." For all its moral, political, cultural, and racial repercussions, slavery was essentially an economic instrument; more often than not it "followed the market," digging its heels in most firmly where the profit-to-loss ratio was at its highest.
Influenced by the shift in production values in the 1790s, cotton cultivation commenced its creep across the southern states. From Maryland, to Virginia, on down to Georgia and beyond (and aided by their slaves), planters began to take advantage of the ideal growing environment offered by territories south of thirty-seven degrees on the latitudinal axis. Smaller farmers, driven out of developed areas by larger landowners and their economic power, continued to move westward across the South in search of ever more fertile land for cultivation. As they moved, some brought their human chattel along with them. Others would acquire slaves once their new farms had been established.
In the state of Alabama, as much if not more than in its neighboring states, cotton was what determined a life-so much so that the state, originally nicknamed the Heart of Dixie, soon enough came to be known more often as the Cotton State. Cotton cultivation became the heart and soul of this former Indian territory, its growth dictating the lives of well near every person-white or black-who happened to find him- or herself living in Alabama from the time of the discovery of the Black Belt Prairie until the boll weevil infestation of 1915.
For more than forty years the Alabama canebrake would fill the pockets of the white ruling class with gold while soaking up the sweat of the black labor force that made it prosper. It was only the advent of the War Between the States (as many southerners still prefer to call it) that forced this ruling class to make concessions regarding its unmediated economic dominance of the region. Even then, however, those concessions would be modest, at best.