Every motel has a story. Some of those stories are part of our personal history, told by those who remember a particular roadside accommodation they stayed at on a family road trip years ago. Others tell a bigger story where the motel becomes not only a part of our collective memory, but also a part of our collective history as a nation. Such is the case with the subject of today’s Motel Monday — the A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, a motel that would serve as the epicenter for Birmingham’s Civil Rights protests and demonstrations.

The A.G. Gaston Motel

In the early 1950s, the well-known African-American businessman and entrepreneur Arthur George Gaston wanted to provide a place where Black travelers could enjoy first-class lodging, dining, and entertainment in Birmingham, AL. Taking his cue from the recently opened (and highly successful) Holiday Inn Hotel Courts up in Memphis, TN, Gaston hired Birmingham-based architect Stanley B. Echols to design the motel, and he opened the doors to his eponymous motel on July 1, 1954.

The motel was a two-story, L-shaped building with 29 guest rooms. A one-story wing sat in front that served as the lobby, coffee shop, and also included the motel’s porte cochere — all typical of a mid-century modern motel of the time.

Inside, guests found each room included high-end furniture, a telephone, and air-conditioning — a luxury for many Americans in 1954. 

The motel was such an immediate success that Gaston expanded it to 32 guest rooms by December 1954. He also added a restaurant just to the right of the coffee shop. Later, he added a cocktail lounge where a “who’s who” of Black entertainers (including Nat King Cole, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder) often performed. Other celebrities and sports personalities, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Jackie Robinson, also spent a night or two at the motel whenever they were in Birmingham. Even a young Army captain by the name of Colin Powell spent his honeymoon night at the A. G. Gaston Motel in August of 1962 with his new bride, Alma.

“As Birmingham Goes …”

After the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, many Southern states and cities — including Birmingham — still tried to maintain a business as usual approach when it came to systemic racism and oppression, including the racial segregation of public accommodations.

As a result, civil rights groups and their allies came together to address racial injustice and encourage equality. One of those groups to join forces in resisting segregation and discrimination in the city of Birmingham in 1962 was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. King believed that if Birmingham could be desegregated, then so could the rest of the nation. As Dr. King’s colleague, the Reverend Frederick Lee Shuttlesworth, said, “… as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.” 

The A.G. Gaston’s “War Room”

Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights activists set up a “War Room” of sorts at the A. G. Gaston Motel. There at the Gaston, from April through May of 1963, these leaders planned the Birmingham Campaign — a series of nonviolent civil actions in Birmingham that eventually broke the back of the city’s racially segregated public-accommodations policy.

At the same time, however, their efforts were met with stiff (and often violent) resistance. On April 10, 1963, Birmingham got a court-ordered injunction to stop the growing civil rights protests that were happening in the city. However, on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, 50 people led by Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy set out for the streets of Birmingham to defy the injunction. They were all soon stopped by the police and arrested. After being arrested and put in solitary confinement for a day, King would write and publish his highly influential Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Later, on May 10, 1963, civil rights activists and Birmingham business leaders reached a compromise on a desegregation plan and called a truce between one another. The next day, a bomb was detonated at the A.G. Gaston Motel, leaving four people injured and a door-sized hole on the west side of the building below Room 30. The target was Dr. King, who often stayed at the motel. Fortunately for King, he and Abernathy had left earlier that day.

The A.G. Gaston Motel Today

After the Birmingham Campaign, A.G. Gaston added a supper club and other modern amenities in 1968.  However, like many mid-century motels of its time, business started declining during the 1970s.

By 1982, Gaston decided that the motel would better serve as housing for the elderly, so he converted the old motel to a senior home that functioned until 1996. After that, the former motel was shuttered for decades. The building became more of an eyesore than a reminder of the role it once played in the Birmingham Campaign to help end racial segregation in public accommodations.

Image: Stuckey’s Corp./Stephanie Stuckey

That all began to change in 2015. That year, the city of Birmingham recognized just how significant the motel was to the Civil Rights movement and bought the property. The plan was to make it part of larger Birmingham Civil Rights Historic District. 

Today, the A.G. Gaston Motel is jointly owned by the National Park Service (NPS) and the City of Birmingham and is a part of Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

Last spring, both the City of Birmingham and the National Park Service (NPS) restored the exterior of the motel to its original splendor. This restoration included installing a replica of the original A. G. Gaston Motel’s neon sign, now lit up by LEDs. However, there’s much more to come and a final plan is expected to be unveiled in spring of this year.

For information on when you can visit the A.G. Gaston Motel, as well as other Birmingham Civil Rights landmarks, visit the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument’s webpage here.

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