Preserving History: The A.G. Gaston Motel

Jul 28, 2015

One of the most hallowed sites of Alabama’s Civil Rights Movement is in danger of vanishing. The A.G. Gaston Motel was a staging point for Martin Luther King Junior, Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy’s equality efforts in Birmingham. A-P-R’s MacKenzie Bates takes a look at the history of the Gaston Motel and the effort to keep this landmark around for future generations…

A “No Trespassing” sign hangs on a locked gate at Birmingham’s A.G. Gaston Motel. The windows of every room are boarded up. There’s been plenty of vacancies, but not the kind you would want for almost thirty years.

But all of that is about to change…

“We help people protect, enjoy and enhance places that matter to them.”

That’s Brent Leggs.  A senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The group has placed the Gaston Motel on its list of America’s eleven most endangered historic places. Leggs says it deserves it…

“The Gaston Motel embodies the perseverance, resilience, and altruism of political activists such as Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, Reverend Shuttlesworth and Reverend Abernathy and the blood, sweat and tears of countless unnamed heroes who changed the soul of our nation.”

Specifically, the Gaston has to considered nationally significant.  There had to be a sense of urgency to remove an immediate action or threat to the building.

In addition to being named to the Endangered list, the NTHP designated the Gaston as a National Treasure. 

Around the block on 16th Street is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  I needed to dig a little deeper about the significance of the Gaston Motel and its namesake, A.G. Gaston. 

“His motto was ‘Find a need and fill it’ and so anywhere there was something lacking in the black community in Birmingham he created it.”

Ahmad Ward is the Head of Education and Exhibition at the institute.  He says A.G. Gaston was one of the first Black Millionaires in the country.  He created an insurance company, and the first African-American Hotel in Birmingham.

Ward recalls meetings between Doctor King and Reverends Shuttlesworth and Abernathy, who often met at the Gaston. 

“I can’t imagine the conversations that were going on in there.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a little bit of time with Fred Shuttlesworth before he passed and he would talk about some of the meetings they had over there at the Gaston and in town.  It’s just a very important part of Birmingham’s history so the designation is amazing is and it’s well-deserved and overdue.”

King and the other civil rights icons coordinated efforts to help African-Americans gain Civil Rights throughout the south and the country.  It was in the Gaston’s “War Room” that the movement’s top leaders made plans for the Birmingham Protests and the Marches from Selma to Montgomery and Washington.

But here it sits.  A shell of what once was the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement.

“I call it a big eyesore.”

Birmingham Mayor William Bell has worked tirelessly on getting the funding to restore the Gaston Motel.  With the placement on the NTHP most endangered historic places, Bell feels like the hard work has paid off…

“This facility will be protected for generations to come.  It also gave us encouragement that we were on the right track for the renovation efforts that we’re putting forward to really make it a facility that can attract tourism and economic dollars to the community itself.”

The Gaston has seen its share of ups and downs.  As part of the historic black district in Birmingham, it was the target of a bombing in May of 1963.  Members of the Ku Klux Klan took responsibility of the attack, injuring a handful of people.

"There must be no repetition of last night’s incidents by any group.”

President John F. Kennedy…

“This government will do whatever must be done to preserve order and protect the lives of its citizens and to uphold the law of the land.”

Mayor Bell says the History of the Gaston should be preserved.

“We feel that it’s not only structurally a facility that needs to be saved but from a standpoint, it tells a story, or another piece of the story about the Civil Rights Movement here in Birmingham, Alabama.” (13secs)

The Gaston is not the first site in Alabama to have a spot on the endangered historIc places.

Fort Gaines in Alabama, a pivotal position in the Battle of Mobile Bay 150 years ago made the list in 2011.

Tourism visit Fort Gaines to watch blacksmith demonstrations or cannons being fired. But, being named an endangered site, hasn’t led to any money from Washington to help restore it.  Sherry Cain is the Interim Director of the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board.

“You hope you’re opening doors but unfortunately I guess with so many things that are needed in this country and there are so many historic places that you kind of get overlooked.  We just put a band aid on it and keep going and hope tomorrow’s a better day and maybe we’ll get something.”

Back at the Gaston, The designation will advance Birmingham’s $10 million plan to help restore it.  The property will be redesigned in to a museum and public Policy Center. It will be called the Freedom Center.

Mayor Bell says the city is looking for 1960s style furniture to create the feel of when the civil rights leaders stayed there.         He expects the project to be completed in the next 18 months.