Chinta and Blaise Gaston were at Fry’s Spring Beach Club in 1963 when they heard their father, Paul Gaston, had been arrested during a sit-in at Buddy’s Restaurant in Charlottesville.
“But only criminals go to jail,” Chinta recalled saying. “And then my mother had to explain that, well, sometimes the government makes mistakes.”
Paul Gaston was a key part of Charlottesville’s desegregation efforts. His activism informed his work as a scholar of Southern history at the University of Virginia, where he worked for decades. Gaston died June 14 at the age of 91.
He grew up in the Fairhope Single Tax Colony, a community in Alabama that believed levying a single tax based on land, not property, would solve inequality. A utopian outlook on life stuck with Gaston, who shed the colony’s economic worldview but maintained a belief that, with the proper education, any person should believe in common decency and equality.
“From his perspective, if you were educating people, they would learn that their benighted, racist worldviews were wrong, and if you were integrating, then you could really learn what someone was like,” Chinta said.
Gaston was hired to UVa’s Corcoran Department of History in 1957 and remained on the faculty for 40 years.
“And I’m not sure UVa got what they expected,” said John Edwin Mason, an associate professor of history, referencing Gaston’s quick entrance into desegregation protests and his effort to bring Martin Luther King Jr. to Grounds. “At the time, it was brave and it was bold and it was controversial.”
Gaston turned down a job at Swarthmore, his undergraduate alma mater, to work in Charlottesville, according to his children.
“At Swarthmore, he saw a sign that told people to sign up to go to the March on Washington,” said Gareth Gaston. “And he thought, they don’t need me. The South needs me.”
Paul and Mary Gaston petitioned for their older children to attend Venable, then the only integrated school, even though it was out of their district. They were kicked out of the beach club after Gaston was arrested, and then hopped pools for a while until they found one that welcomed Jewish and African American friends. Chinta recalled days when her mother and her friends would attend court hearings for protesters.
In May 1963, Gaston was arrested along with the Rev. Henry Floyd Johnson, the local NAACP president, and William Johnson. They had tried to enter Buddy’s and order dinner, but were turned away. According to Daily Progress archives, two white men then approached the demonstrators and beat them up. All five were charged with assault and battery; the demonstrators were acquitted while the segregationists were found guilty and fined $10.
Gaston also worked with the Human Relations Council, which helped to bring King to Charlottesville, despite city and university officials’ disapproval. Before King’s speech at Old Cabell Hall, Mary Gaston raced to the airport with her children so they could meet him.
“I remember meeting him, I remember shaking his hand, and I remember his great smile,” Chinta said. She didn’t wash her hand for days after.
Her father’s activism occasionally led to hate calls that would come at all hours; the children remembered “putting the phone to bed” at night, wrapping it in towels so they couldn’t hear it ring.
Their childhood was also fun, spending days outside playing baseball and basketball, and waking up at 4 a.m. to go see the sunrise over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their parents frequently hosted parties and let people stay over.
Gaston backed the establishment of UVa’s Carter G. Woodson Institute, which supports African American and African studies. He helped to recruit the institute’s first director, Armstead Robinson, and remained a staunch supporter of the program, according to Robinson’s widow, Mildred Robinson, who is a professor at UVa’s law school. The two were frequently guests at big parties thrown at the Gaston house on Rugby Road.
“Paul was a magnificent person, a bright light,” Robinson said.
Gaston also remained interested in the Fairhope colony, and took Gareth there so he could study and write about its history. He also developed an interest in South Africa, and traveled there to learn more about how the transition from apartheid compared with America’s transition out of slavery.
Mason first encountered Gaston at a conference in Cape Town, and remembered being delighted to run into that “impressive voice, mellow and authoritative” when he arrived in Charlottesville to work at UVa years later.
Gaston stayed committed to ideas of fairness and equality, according to his children, working to recruit Ann J. Lane, who led UVa’s new women’s studies program, and driving a friend to hear his court case at the Supreme Court. Even as he became frail, former Charlottesville Mayor Kay Slaughter recalled, he showed up at local Democratic headquarters in 2016 to help campaign for Hillary Clinton.
“He didn’t have much of a problem working for what he thought was right,” Chinta said. “And I think from him, we all got the family value of caring about each other and caring about other people in the world.”
Gaston was preceded in death by Mary in 2013. He is survived by his children, Blaise, Chinta and Gareth; daughters-in-law Cali and Heather; and granddaughters Eliza and Mira. A memorial service will take place at a later date.