They have been a singular, historic, and highly effective fraternity.
Fraternity, sure. All males. All merchandise of an age not fairly but prepared to raise girls to a deserved place alongside them.
They have been A.G. Gaston’s most trusted. His most loyal. They have been educated and savvy.
They helped construct, develop and maintain the various enterprises comprising the portfolio of Birmingham’s most revered Black businessman. Heck, most revered businessman, if not actually within the room.
Now, they’re all gone — all of the senior govt leaders who helmed insurance coverage and banking ventures birthed by Gaston. Ventures that confirmed Black males might thrive, independently, in sectors that scoffed at their expertise, scoffed at their aptitude.
Scoffed at their pores and skin.
Bunny Stokes, Jr. died this week. He was the final of them, the lone remaining of the senior executives who labored underneath Gaston’s tutelage.
Name them Child Gastons. Black males who ran stuff — who nurtured the various fruit of Gaston’s goals. They have been hand-picked, tutored, and empowered by the grandson of slaves who died a millionaire. A founding father of an insurance coverage firm, financial institution, motel, funeral house, building firm and a lot extra.
Louis Willie was the primary amongst them to go away us. He died in 2007 at age 84. Gaston lured him to Birmingham after Willie earned an M.B.A. from the College of Michigan. He grew and guiding numerous companies, served for a time as president of Gaston’s Booker T. Washington Insurance coverage firm.
“He was Gaston’s right-hand man,” says Bob Dickerson, who labored briefly at Citizens Federal Savings, the financial institution Gaston based in 1956. The primary Black-owned financial institution in Birmingham in 4 a long time.
Willie additionally toppled most of the metropolis’s social racial boundaries, turning into the primary Black member in areas the place we at the moment are all however widespread. Like The Membership and the as soon as stone-cold white Shoal Creek Nation Membership.
Two years after Willie’s loss of life, Kirkwood Balton was gone, too, at 74. He spent 42 years with Gaston and sat on the helm of WENN-FM radio and the insurance coverage firm.
“Bunny goes down with these iconic execs,” Dickerson says.
Stokes joined Residents in 1968 and didn’t depart till retiring in 2016 as President, Alabama Division of then Citizens Trust Bank, having been absorbed by Black-owned Residents Belief Financial institution of Atlanta in 2003. In 1968 he stood alongside Gaston because the boss signed the contract buying the constructing on Third Avenue North the place the establishment nonetheless resides.
Jason Eppenger succeeded Stokes because the inhabitant of the sprawling workplace on the constructing’s second ground. He credit his predecessor with representing Black males in banking in an age when white banks have been simply starting to permit Blacks to raise to a deserved place.
“There wouldn’t be a me,” Eppenger says. “I’d not have been in a position to succeed at white establishments., succeed him had he not modeled what success for a Black man in banking appeared like.”
Outdoors of the financial institution, Stokes modeled success in actual property, too. He constructed an enterprise past the huge Gaston footprint promoting residential and industrial properties all through the state.
Dickerson says he obtained to know Stokes as they drove to examine properties the financial institution was contemplating for enterprise.
“If we have been making a mortgage, we checked out that property,” Dickerson says. “If we have been foreclosing, we checked out that property. We obtained to be fairly shut throughout these drives actual property.
“If there was a Child Gaston worker Corridor of Fame, Bunny can be in it,” he added. “A.G. Gaston trusted him, and he was loyal.”
Funeral preparations for Bunny Stokes, Jr.:
Public Viewing, Thursday, June 24, 2021
11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (CST)
Smith & Gaston Funeral House
102 sixth Avenue SW
Birmingham, AL 35211
Graveside Service, Friday, June 25, 2021
11:00 a.m. (CST)
Elmwood Cemetery & Mausoleum
600 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive
Birmingham, AL 35211