By James Clingman
One of the greatest entrepreneurs in this nation, Arthur George Gaston, offered these wise words of advice to prospective business owners: “Find a need and fill it.” If there is anyone we can look to for an example of how business is done it is certainly A.G. Gaston. Starting out by lending his money to fellow miners, A.G. parlayed his earnings into personal profit with the interest he made. That reminds me of my days in the U.S. Navy when I used to do the same thing. In addition to being paid for pressing their uniforms and shining their shoes, every payday I would lend money to my shipmates, and require the principal and interest be repaid the following payday. I guess I had a little A.G. Gaston in me back then.
What it all amounts to is heeding those famous words. Businesses are primarily built on the needs of consumers, and as I have said before, sometimes an entrepreneur can turn a want into a need with slick marketing and advertising campaigns. Gaston used his fill a need statement to his advantage; it is said that when he died in 1996, at 103 years of age, his net worth was in the tens of millions of dollars—one estimate had it as high as $130 million. He filled needs by starting a burial insurance service, complete with cemetery plots, a construction firm, a motel, a radio station, a business college, and other ventures.
This phenomenal businessman is just another in a long line of Black entrepreneurs who understood what it took to start and grow a business, and they did it quite well, despite the hurdles, discrimination, setbacks, rejections, and failures. From Anthony Johnson in the 1600s to John and George Johnson in the 1950s and 1960s, to Bob Johnson in the 1980s until the present, Black entrepreneurs have made their mark in this nation, and not only should we appreciate their accomplishments, we should also learn from them.
Another thing we can learn from Gaston’s life is how the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and Black economic empowerment worked. Blacks were not allowed to stay in most motels in Birmingham in the 1960s; Gaston built his own motel and allowed MLK and his team to stay there and use it as their “war room.” When King was put in jail by Bull Connor, it was Gaston who put up the bail money to get him released. It goes to show the importance of having an economic base from which to fight for civil rights.
In his review of the book, Black Titan, written by Carol Jenkins and Elizabeth Gardner Hines, David Beito wrote, “Gaston’s wealth and cordial ties with the white elite gave him a certain amount of clout that others did not have. His favorite methods were quiet negotiation, deal making, and, if necessary, private threats. He was often effective. For example, the ‘Whites Only’ signs on the drinking fountains in the First National Bank came down after Gaston threatened to pull his account. Many have forgotten the extent to which Blacks were exerting economic pressure successfully to bring integration in the decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Beito went on to suggest that the Civil Rights Movement was the by-product of the economic foundation first laid by individuals such as [Booker T.] Washington and Gaston.
Isn’t it amazing that in spite of the obvious fact that economics runs this country, Blacks in 2013 still place more emphasis and expend more energy on politics and so-called civil rights, than we do on economic empowerment? Booker T. once shared that a society does not have to be compelled to associate with a Black man who is educated and has $50,000 to lend. A.G. Gaston took that to heart and used it to his great financial advantage as well as for others.
To all of you future and current entrepreneurs out there, make sure to take some time to study Black business owners, especially those from the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s. S.B. Fuller, Annie Malone, Madam C.J. Walker, Anthony Overton, Sarah Washington, Phillip Payton, Herman Perry, Wendell Dabney and others are examples of what we should be doing today as business owners. Of course, there are many contemporary Black entrepreneurs we must study as well.
Booker T. Washington said, “America will have no internal peace until there has been a grant of full economic rights and opportunities to Black America.” We have a role to play in that ideal, brothers and sisters, by establishing viable businesses, growing them, and creating jobs for ourselves. Let’s get busy and remember to “find a need and fill it.”
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his Web site, blackonomics.com.