Green Power

January 27, 1996|By Harold Jackson

ICY-VEINED journalists often gauge the importance of people by whether their obituary ends up in the New York Times. Two people from my hometown in Alabama who last week earned that unfortunate distinction deserve remembering for more important reasons.

Joe Bruno started a corner grocery store with his brother in Birmingham in the 1930s and built it into a billion-dollar, multi-state supermarket and drugstore chain.

A.G. Gaston learned to be an entrepreneur while working in a coal mine and by the 1950s was considered by many to be the wealthiest black man in America.

Mr. Bruno was like other Italian-Americans who ran little ''mom and pop'' stores in Birmingham's African-American neighborhoods. In mine, there was Mr. Joe and Miss Nancy. I never learned their last names, which isn't unusual in the Deep South.

By adding a courtesy title to a first name you give a person respect while acknowledging familiarity. It isn't a black-white thing. I still do it when speaking to older people I have known since childhood. My mother calls her friend ''Sara,'' I say ''Miss Sara.''

My point is that Mr. Joe and Miss Nancy and Mr. Bruno were treated with that type of respect and familiarity in their little stores because they cared about their customers. They asked ** about your mama and daddy and how you were doing in school.

I am reminded of this whenever I hear about a Korean-American store owner in a black neighborhood who has been robbed or attacked or otherwise made to feel unwelcome. I wonder whether that store owner has been able to hurdle language and cultural differences to get to know his customers as people.

Mr. Gaston's life presents a different lesson, one in black power.

Hard at work at 101

I interviewed Mr. Gaston three years ago for Black Enterprise magazine. He was 101 years old, had suffered a stroke less than two months before the meeting and was already back at his desk at his bank almost every day.

''Dr. Gaston'' (his degrees were honorary) wrote a book about his life in 1968 and titled it ''Green Power.'' He wanted to stress the importance of economic strength to black folks who thought it was powerful just to be able to sit down at the same lunch counter with white people.

But Mr. Gaston was a believer in the civil-rights movement. He frequently bailed out demonstrators from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, including Martin Luther King Jr. Shortly after King checked out of the Gaston Motel, it was bombed by racists.

As a child, Mr. Gaston and his mother lived on a farm with his grandparents, who had been slaves. They later moved to Birmingham, where his mother cooked for a rich white family.

While working as a mine laborer for $3.10 a day, Mr. Gaston sold box lunches that his mother prepared. Then he started a burial society. In lieu of insurance, participants put their money into a pool used to pay for their funerals.

As the years passed, Mr. Gaston opened a mortuary, a cemetery, an insurance company, a bank. By the time King came to town he was already being invited to meetings of Birmingham's most influential businessmen.

''I was always the only nigger in the group,'' Mr. Gaston told me, sarcasm dripping from his mouth as he used the racial epithet. ''I was always a good nigger. But there was always a reason for that. It allowed me to take advantage of opportunity.''

The indignities and setbacks Mr. Gaston suffered while amassing his fortune in a city infamous for its mistreatment of blacks should be inspirational to any young person today who thinks success is out of reach.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

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