The Iron Mines

The Iron Mines

Pick any sweltering day in the year 1919. On the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, in a small mining village, hundreds of black men are at work, side by side. The old-fashioned broiler that is the Alabama sun beats down hard upon them, and to a man, each is afloat in his own sweat. In the ground beneath their feet, men less lucky than they swim in the blackness of the pits. Thousands of pounds of iron will emerge as a result of their labor; and thousands of men will die in its pursuit.

Some of the men you see and cannot see are convicts, leased out by the state to bring in revenues; some are war veterans, newly returned to face few opportunities and ample disdain. Nevertheless, one of these men, bruised like all the others by the demands of his working life, is on the verge of taking his first step in the direction of becoming a bona fide millionaire-one hundred times over.

Before this man is through, he will serve as an adviser to President John Kennedy. He will play a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement. One day he will even be likened to the great giants of American industry-Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie among them. Like just about every other black man in Alabama in the early part of the twentieth century, A. G. Gaston started with next to nothing: His mother was a cook in the kitchen of a prominent white family; he never had more than a tenth-grade education. After the war he had taken his position in the mines as a means of survival-only to emerge utterly determined that his life was worth more than what the mines were offering.

That determination was a kind of miracle given the context in which Gaston had been raised. And that miracle is the foundation of the story you are about to hear.

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