A. G. Gaston Motel

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Postcard view of the A. G. Gaston Motel in the 1950s

The A. G. Gaston Motel is a former motel located at 1510 5th Avenue North, now part of Birmingham's "Civil Rights District". It was constructed in 1954 by businessman A. G. Gaston to provide higher-class service to black visitors during the city's decades of strictly-segregated business and recreation.

Gaston struck upon the idea of building a motel while he and his wife, Minnie were representing the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church at the 1951 World Methodist Council in Oxford, England. While there he learned that the National Baptist Convention's Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress was considering Birmingham for its 1954 meeting. Knowing that Black visitors would have trouble finding adequate lodging, he set out to fill the need. After his return he studied motels, especially the successful Holiday Inn chain, which served as a model for the Gaston Motel. The building was designed by Stanley Echols of the Brooke Burnham's architectural firm and constructed by the Steel City Construction Company. Gaston exceeded the basic needs of travelers, embarking on "a real adventure in providing something fine that I believe will be appreciated by our people," as he told a Birmingham News reporter.

The Gaston Motel opened on June 30, 1954, just in time to host guests of the National Baptist Convention. The motel had 32 guest rooms, some of which were "master suites" which could sleep up to seven guests. All rooms were heated and air-conditioned with private baths, in-room telephones, and jukeboxes. The drapes and bedspreads were custom-made and high-end furnishings were purchased from Rhodes Caroll.

The enclosed parking court terminated in a shaded patio. Off the lobby were a spacious dining room with a cocktail lounge. George Small was hired as the motel's first manager and the Gaston's own personal chef, Mamie Ruth, oversaw the kitchen. Beginning in 1959 the day-to-day management of the motel was overseen by Kirkwood Balton. Earnest Gibson was hired to manage the restaurant and lounge in 1963.

The lounge regularly booked nationally-renowned entertainers, including Little Richard and Stevie Wonder. Notable guests at the Gaston Motel included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin and Jackie Robinson. Future Secretary of State Colin Powell spent his wedding night there with his bride Alma on August 25, 1962.

Civil Rights Movement

Because it was the city's premier black establishment, the Gaston Motel hosted countless leaders in the Southern movement for Civil Rights as they met and traveled through Birmingham. Gaston himself, though he sought meaningful long-term improvement in the treatment of blacks, strongly disagreed with plans by Fred Shuttlesworth's Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to bring SCLC leaders to Birmingham to lead mass demonstrations. In return, some in the movement wanted to picket his motel along with the white businesses that wouldn't hire or serve blacks.

Nevertheless, Gaston often worked behind the scenes to assist with the movement and to negotiate with more moderate figures in the white business community. When Shuttlesworth did invite the SCLC leaders to the city to plan a Birmingham Campaign (called "Project C"), they stayed and met at the Gaston Motel, even though Gaston insisted that the bill be made out to the local ACMHR.

During the Spring of 1963 King stayed in room 30, which was used as a "war room" by the movement's top leaders. It was there that he made the decision to defy a court's injunction and submit himself to being jailed as a show of solidarity with local protesters. The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" he composed laid out his philosophy of racial justice and his commitment to using non-violent demonstrations to create a crisis that could only be resolved by positive change. After a violent showdown with Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor which triggered national outrage, it was at the Gaston Motel's courtyard where King, Abernathy and an injured Fred Shuttlesworth announced the a truce with white business leaders and city officials. On May 12, two days after the truce was signed, a pair of bombs exploded near King's room, destroying most of the motel's facade.

Later years

The Gaston Motel was part of a controversy over player housing during the Alabama Vulcans lone season in 1977. In 1982 Gaston spent $500,000 to convert the hotel into 39 two-bedroom apartments for the elderly or disabled. Under arrangement with the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District, lower-income residents would qualify for subsidized rent.


In 2007 St Louis, Missouri developer Michael V. Roberts announced plans to renovate the Gaston Motel as a hotel and conference center with interactive exhibits to educate visitors about its important role in black history. He asked the city for about $9 million in incentives to get the project going. In 2008 Roberts said that he was working with other investors and with Birmingham mayor Larry Langford to consider a larger redevelopment project, in which the motel would be a centerpiece.

In January 2015 The Birmingham City Council approved $10 million in public funds for redevelopment of the motel site as a "Freedom Center". A portion of the historic hotel would be preserved and restored. New buildings would function as an extension of the adjacent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, housing additional program space along with new academic facilities. The center, which was never built, was to have been marketed as a potential home for a U.S. Institute of Human Rights.

In late 2016 the city deeded over a portion of the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the purpose of establishing a Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. President Barack Obama created the monument by proclamation on January 17, 2017 giving the National Park Service responsibility for developing a management plan to preserve and interpret the various objects and sites relating to the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.

The already-approved city funds from 2015 were put toward restoration of the building in two phases, with architect Jack Pyburn of Atlanta, Georgia overseeing the restoration plans and A. G. Gaston Construction carrying out the work. The first phase, dedicated on March 10, 2021, stabilized and restored the exterior of the 1954 wing and re-roofed the entire hotel. A recreation of the motel's sign, made with LEDs instead of neon, was also included in the first phase. That portion of the building was then turned over to the National Park Service for use as a visitor's center for the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, including exhibits and a period restoration of room 30, Project C's "war room".

Meanwhile, the city went on to pursue further restoration of the 1968 wing, the bulk of which was completed in June 2022. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg attended the ribbon cutting. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York City awarded the project a $1.1 million grant to develop an exhibit about A. G. Gaston and his business empire. That area opened to visitors on June 29.

Another $5.6 million in federal grant money is expected to be used to complete the preservation and interpretation project by 2025. Denise Gilmore, as head of the Birmingham Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity, supervised plans for utilizing the former restaurant as a coffee shop and exhibit space with access to the motel courtyard.



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