July 03. Celebrating the Fourth
Contributor
Written by
Carol Jenkins
July 2009
Contributor
Written by
Carol Jenkins
July 2009
Whenever we get anywhere near the 4th of July—and its permission to begin the light-hearted part of the year—I think about my Uncle Arthur. He was, without a doubt, one of the most free-spirited, un-angst loaded people I’ve known. And, July 4th was his birthday—or so he said. My daughter, Elizabeth Hines, and I wrote a book about him and discovered all sorts of amazing things about him—and our country. The mouth-full title: Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. Try that on twitter! What we attempted to do was tell the history of the United States as he experienced it during the century-plus of his life. Born in 1892, he died in 1996 at the age of 103. In that span he managed to time-and-space travel from his grandparents’ slave cabin to The White House, as an advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. And he created ten major businesses along the way—hence, his millionaire status. Uncle Arthur and my Aunt Minnie, one of my mother’s sisters and the matriarch of our family, lived in Birmingham, Alabama, on a gorgeous estate with a swimming pool, lake, goldfish pond—all the things that seemed just crazily posh to me and my cousins who had, shall we say, less royal lives. Every 4th of July my uncle celebrated his birthday by opening up his home and grounds to the less privileged children (including his nephews and nieces) of Birmingham, many of whom belonged to the Girls and Boys Club he supported. Barbecue and music, swimming and fishing,—those were great Fourths. American Fourths. A lush time, if only for a day. 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 have 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. Many would say he had no right to be so optimistic about America and his own future: the year my uncle was born in this country, 165 black men, women, and children were lynched—that was the most recorded in a single year. But while he was plenty lighthearted, he took his work seriously. By the time the civil rights movements came along in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, my uncle was already a rich man—a former coalminer who now owned a bank and insurance company, the first black motel in the south, a business school. He helped Martin Luther King, Jr desegregate Birmingham department stores—and at the request of a President, bailed him out of jail. I have often wondered what my uncle would have thought of a President Barack Obama—celebrating this Fourth of July at Camp David with his wife and children. There is no way he’d be able to contain his pride, I’m sure. But as I look at the dismal economic statistics of people of color in this country, I know he’d understand there are circumstances that mute the big Fourth celebrations. As a businessman he understood that true equality, independence, and freedom—all the things we wave the flag for--have, at the base, solid financial underpinnings. The way he put it: “There is no such thing as a broke first class citizen.”

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Comments
  • Carol Jenkins

    Debra and Gwyn--thanks so much!

  • Debra Condren

    Happy birthday, Uncle Arthur (what a story!). And happy birthday to our country, hopefully on a new, optimistic track.