From: Black Titan by Carol Jenkins and Elizabeth Gardner Hines
Uncle Arthur had always been a presence in my life. He married my mother’s sister Minnie before I was born. I’m told that when Minnie Gardner married Arthur George Gaston, it was considered a melding of royal dynasties. While my uncle had begun to make his way in the world, the Gardners, a farming family from Montgomery, were considered some of the most beautiful people in Alabama. Thanks to a thoroughly shaken racial cocktail, the girls were, as they would say in the South, ‘Beauty Queens’, the boys “handsome devils.” Thusly united, my cousins and I grew up in a huge, privileged Alabama family: huge because there were so many of us Gardners (thirty siblings and spouses, forty-five first cousins, and so on), privileged because we were the nieces and nephews of A.G. and Minnie Gaston.
Minnie, one of the oldest of the fifteen Gardner children, had helped raise my mother, Elizabeth, when their parents were no longer able. She lived with the Gastons off and on while she was in school, forming a bond with them that might not have been otherwise possible given the practical considerations of being on of fifteen siblings. It was Aunt Minnie, childless in her marriage to A. G. who later chose my name – the name she had been saving for her own, unborn daughter.
By the time I was seven I had moved to New York City with my parents, but the day school closed for the summer I could be found on a plane headed south, a tag on my dress indicating who would pick me up: the Gastons. It was by now the 1950s, and a deeply segregated Alabama of separate shcools and water fountains was in full effect. Segregated buses, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. The dogs, the bombings, the murders. But little of this returns in the memories I have of my times with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Arthur. My cousins and I loved the summers of luxury that we were afforded by them: the grand city house, the country homes with pools for swimming, lakes for fishing, highly polished floors for sliding across in our socks.
Looking back, of course, I see how much effort went into sequestering us from the ugliness of the time. I was completely oblivious to being discriminated against in any way. It was only years later that I realized I had never been on a bus in Alabama.
Though Uncle Arthur was, arguably, the king of Birmingham, my Aunt Minnie, or simply ‘Auntie’ as we called her, presided over our clan, the Gastons and the Gardners, like a benevolent queen.During the summer she would take charge of perhaps ten of us cousins at a time. Those summers were also very much like boot camp for us: We were educated thoroughly in manners, morality, and essential life skills like typing. Here we were schooled in the best Socratic method, for Auntie hardly every spoke in sentences. She peppered us, instead, with statements that required us to come up with key words to complete her phrase. She was not pleased if you failed to supply the correct answer.
Auntie had created her own domain in the business world, centered on the Booker T. Washington Business College, the part of the Gaston empire she ran. She would help created the federal student loan program that allowed millions of black and white students across the country to secure loans to pay their college tuition. But before her attention and influence were global, we had her eye on us. It was our inescapable fate to find ourselves nailed to a chair in typing class on a broiling-hot Birmingham day. Everyone had to type. Everyone cried and complained. But everyone learned. Years later, nailed to my chair before the typewriter in the newsroom of a New York telelvison station and on a tight deadline, I felt overwhelmingly thankful for the instruction I had received at Auntie’s hands.
There was another important lesson we learned from my aunt: the care and feeding of a Very Important Person. She adored her husband, and he adored her, and this was a good thing for children to experience. Not that our own homes were not loving – it’s just that most of our families were consumed by the more ordinary daily scramble to keep our heads above water. In the Gaston home, however, we got to see the benefits of undivided attention – and they were many.
People marveled at my uncle’s vigor, well past one hundred. Many thought it was my aunt’s special dietary ministrations, and they very well may have been right. As children we were expected to help prepare his morning concoction of raw eggs and orange juice (which we scrunched up our noses at) and his evening meal of a mammoth steak, medium rare, which we were delighted to join him in. In an effort to keep Uncle Arthur’s skin soft and shining, Auntie created a lotion of a hundred ingredients that she lathered on him daily. He looked so healthy that people began to ask for it themselves, and by popular demand Auntie began bottling it.
Together Aunt Minnie and Uncle Arthur seemed to have figured out the answers to everything: how to become wealthy by doing good, how to have a successful marriage, even how to live a long life.
By the time we were enjoying these idyllic summers, the name A. G. Gaston was everywhere in Alabama. We took it for granted that the motel was named for him, the imposing office building, the funeral homes, the senior citizen homes; that he owned the bank, the radio station. He created a world for us; we had an up-close look at limitless possibilities. We simply never thought, A black person can’t do that, because our uncle HAD. But there was never any indication from Uncle Arthur, the man, that he was A. G. Gaston, perhaps the richest black man in America. He was not a show – off.
The experiences that he and my aunt shared with us would make us knowing in a way not available to most children, black or white. They traveled early to Africa, bringing back art and artifacts to decorate their homes, to complement other antiques; sailed to England on the Queen Elizabeth in the top cabin; spent time with Soviets in their homes; had their pictures taken with, and advice sought by presidents. They had dinner at the White House when that was a rare invitation for blacks, indeed. In my lucky midpoint position in New York, I often got to see them first, as they disembarked from a plan or ship, full of exotic stories and gifts. My aunt, giving a delighted squeal to see us; my uncle, ever-present pipe in hand, greeting me by the more acceptable of the nicknames my family had bestowed on me: ‘Well, Miss Caldonia!”