They were a unique, historic and powerful brotherhood.
Brotherhood, yes. All men. All the products of an age that is not yet quite ready to elevate women to a deserved place by their side.
They were the most trusted of AG Gaston. His most loyal. They were educated and knowledgeable.
They have helped build, develop and maintain the diverse businesses that make up the portfolio of Birmingham’s most revered black businessman. Damn, the most revered businessman, if not certainly in the room.
Now they are all gone – all the top executives who ran the insurance and banking companies that Gaston started. Companies that showed black men could thrive, independently, in industries that made fun of their skills, made fun of their abilities.
Didn’t care about their skin.
Bunny Stokes, Jr. passed away this week. He was the last of them, the only one left of the senior executives who worked under Gaston’s tutelage.
Call them Baby Gastons. Black men who ran stuff – which nourished the varied fruit of Gaston’s dreams. They were handpicked, educated and empowered by the grandson of slaves who died millionaires. Founder of an insurance company, bank, motel, funeral home, construction company and much more.
Louis Willie was the first of them to leave us. He died in 2007 at the age of 84. Gaston drew him to Birmingham after Willie obtained an MBA from the University of Michigan. He grew up and ran various businesses, serving for a time as president of Gaston’s Booker T. Washington Insurance Company.
“He was Gaston’s right-hand man,” says Bob Dickerson, who briefly worked at Federal savings for citizens, Gaston Bank founded in 1956. The first black-owned bank in Birmingham in four decades.
Willie also broke down many of the city’s social racial barriers, becoming the first black member in spaces where we are now almost common. Like The Club and the once icy white Shoal Creek Country Club.
Two years after Willie’s death, Kirkwood balton was also gone at 74. He spent 42 years with Gaston and was the head of WENN-FM radio and the insurance company.
“Bunny comes down with these iconic leaders,” Dickerson says.
Stokes joined Citizens in 1968 and only retired in 2016 as president of the then Alabama Division. Citizen’s Trust Bank, after being absorbed by the Citizens Trust Bank of Atlanta, owned by blacks, in 2003. In 1968, he stood with Gaston as the boss who signed the contract to purchase the building on Third Avenue North where still resides the institution.
Jason Eppenger took over from Stokes as the resident of the sprawling office on the third floor of the building. He credits his predecessor with representing black men in banking at a time when white banks were just beginning to allow blacks to rise to a deserved place.
“There would be no meEppenger said. “I couldn’t have succeeded in white institutions.
Outside of banking, Stokes has also modeled success in real estate. He built a business beyond Gaston’s vast footprint by selling residential and commercial properties statewide.
Dickerson says he got to know Stokes as they drove to inspect properties the bank was considering for business.
“If we made a loan, we looked at this property,” Dickerson says. “If we had to enter, we would look at this property. We had to be quite close during these trips in search of real estate.
“If there was a Hall of Fame for Baby Gaston employees, Bunny would be part of it,” he added. “AG Gaston trusted him, and he was faithful.
Bunny Stokes, Jr. was 77 years old.
Funeral arrangements for Bunny Stokes, Jr.:
Public screening, Thursday, June 24, 2021
11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (CST)
Smith & Gaston Funeral Home
102 6th Avenue SW
Birmingham, AL 35211
Cemetery service, Friday June 25, 2021
11:00 a.m. (CST)
Elmwood Cemetery and Mausoleum
600 Martin Luther King Drive, Jr.
Birmingham, AL 35211