I would like to do three things in my allotted fifteen minutes. First, I want to list the names of fourteen African Americans who had more to do with the establishment of Texas A&M University than anyone who currently is honored on our campus with a statue, or with a building, boulevard, or street.
Secondly, I want to explain -- after more than 130 years after the American Civil War and its immediate aftermath, the period of Reconstruction -- how we can account for the historical amnesia regarding the origins of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas and its establishment under Senate Bill 276 in the Spring of 1871 and its location in the same year, 1871, directly across the street from where we are assembled this afternoon.
Third, with a great deal of pleasure, I want to repeat the good news -- that the role that black Texans played in bringing Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M into existence will hopefully soon be commemorated here on our campus. The President's Advisory Commission on Art Policies has approved the erection of a statue, in style similar to the Ross and Rudder statues, in honor of Matthew Gaines, an ex-slave who became the first African-American state senator from Washington County. All that remains is final approval by President Ray Bowen.
Gaines was the leader in the 12th Texas Legislature who passionately and unflaggingly supported the forward looking, but at the time extremely controversial, legislation needed to establish the first public school system for all Texans and to meet the deadline in 1871 for allowing Texas to take advantage of the federal Morrill Land-Grant College Act. Voting along with Gaines in favor of the enabling legislation for a Texas land grant college was the entire delegation of black lawmakers in the 12th Legislature.
In the state Senate, joining Gaines, was George Ruby, a freeborn black from New York who came to Galveston after the war and who was one of the few blacks to serve as a Freedmen's Bureau agent. In the lower house, Richard Allen and Goldsteen Dupree represented Harris and Montgomery Counties. Allen remained a fixture in Houston politics until the end of the century, but Dupree was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1873. D. W. Burley and Silas Cotton represented Freestone, Leon, and Robertson Counties. Burley, who was emancipated at the age of two by a Virginia slaveholder, served in the Union Army before coming to Texas at the end of the war. Silas Cotton came to Texas from South Carolina as a slave in 1852 and after emancipation in 1865 acquired considerable land of his own. Henry Moore and Mitchell Kendall represented Harrison County. Moore was a farmer and a storekeeper; Kendall was blacksmith. Representing Falls, Limestone, and McLennan Counties were David Medlock and Sheppard Mullens. The former was a minister; the latter a blacksmith. Jeremiah J. Hamilton represented Bastrop and Fayette Counties. Hamilton later established a newspaper in Austin called The Citizen. Representing this county, Brazos County, along with neighboring Burleson and Milan Counties was John Mitchell. Benjamin F. Williams, a barber, mechanic, and minister, represented Colorado and Lavaca Counties, and Richard Williams, a blacksmith and minister, represented Madison, Grimes and Walker Counties.
Like Gaines, all these lawmakers were Republicans and all but one, George Ruby, had been former slaves. These men were among the most inspiring and dynamic black leaders of their day. Without their leadership and without the votes cast in 1869 by thousands of newly freed slaves, neither Edmund J. Davis, the first Republican governor of Texas, nor the Republican-dominated 12th Legislature would have risen to power and inaugurated the most remarkable, but brief, period in our state's history--a unprecedented period in which African-Texans experienced for a movement a semblance of justice.
Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M are today the only two tangible achievements of the bi-racial democracy that was briefly brought to power in Texas by black political activism in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Subsequently, essentially what happened was that Texas Democrats chose brute force and expediency over statesmanship and fair play by appealing to the baser instincts of the white electorate and condoning violence against black voters to get control of the state government. Every year after Davis was elected, Democratic party threats, intimidation, and violence exacted their toll on the Republican coalition. Ultimately and sadly, the problem of violence in Texas was resolved under Democratic leadership by letting the violent have their way.
Once in power the Democrats destroyed most of the Republican achievements, dismantling the state police, the state militia, and the entire public school system. (It was not until 1943 that public schools were resurrected.) The Democrats replaced the 1869 Reconstruction constitution (the finest constitution Texas has ever had) with a "horse and buggy" constitution which has hampered sound and progressive changes down to this very day--for amendments are still are required to permit even the most trivial government action. Overall, the 1876 constitution was written and adopted by men who exulted in their Confederate past, advocated principles discredited by the carnage of the Civil War, and were convinced of their racial superiority over the freedman. They made the A. and M. College of Texas part of the nonexistent University of Texas, subsequently cut state funding for the College at times down to absolutely nothing, and contemplated putting off opening the branch at Prairie View--a course of action that not only would have violated federal requirements but also would have risked the forfeiture of the land grants. Sufficient state appropriations to put Texas A&M on a sufficient working basis were not provided until the early 20th century. As late as 1914 the Texas legislature came within a handful of votes from relocating the A. and M. College of Texas, along with its land grant, to San Antonio and converting every building on the A&M campus in that year into "an asylum for the Negro insane."
The Democrats also rewrote Texas history: Governor Davis and the Texas Republicans were condemned as "fanatics" who had tried to "mongrelize" the Lone Star State by sinking it to the infernal depths of so-called "Negro Equality." The Democrats successfully put forth the thoroughly discredited, yet powerful "carpetbagger" myth--the myth that a Republican party coalition of ex-slaves, "scalawags," and Northern adventurers ran Texas in a despotic fashion after the Civil War and fortunately for the white race the Ku Klux Klan and Democratic party "redeemers" put an end by 1874, at least at the state level, to what they believed was an artificial and illegitimate experiment in granting full civic and political rights to former slaves.
There are reasons for the durability of this "carpetbagger myth." There is a usefulness in blaming Yankees or Northerners for the many perceived evils of Reconstruction. In part, the blame helps to reduce the collective guilt in white Southern culture over slavery. No generation of Texans caused more death, misery, and destruction than the secessionists who took their state out of the American Union in 1861 and started a civil war for the most pitiful cause imaginable: the defense of slavery. The notion of carpetbagger persecution after the war not only reduces guilt about the cause of the war, but because the myth implies that unscrupulous Yankees came into Texas after the war and injected alien and disastrous ideas into the heads of childlike freedmen, it also helps to minimize the accomplishments of African Texans during the Reconstruction era. This enduring and powerful "carpetbagger myth" made it impossible for over a century to separate what was real and what is myth about the origins of our university.
And what was real about the origins of our school? At the height of the American Civil War, during the darkest days of the Union in 1862, with Stonewall Jackson and the Confederates threatening to attack Washington, D.C., Northern Republicans led by Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont suggested that the government set aside several million acres of federal land for the support of agricultural and industrial higher education. Opponents asked: "Why do something for the future? We may not have a union in two or three years." After the war during Reconstruction when ex-Confederate states got the chance to take advantage of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, opponents asked: "Why should Texas have a school where only scalawags and carpetbaggers would find employment? Why support higher education for ex-slaves? Would not this be a waste of taxpayer money and lead to only the destruction of good field hands?"
In this instance the historical record speaks for itself: land-grant schools in the United States have turned out more Nobel prize winners than all the universities in continental Europe. As members of the Texas A&M community we are unquestionably circuitous beneficiaries of Justin Smith Morrill, but we are direct legatees of the fourteen African American lawmakers who served in the 12th Texas Legislature. Their progressive and egalitarian investment in 1871 in the future of education laid the essential foundations for the building of our university-- which we proudly hail today as "the first state institution of higher learning in Texas." As members of the Texas A&M community we today stand on their shoulders, just as future generations of Texans will stand on the shoulders of many of the award winners in this room today. This is the way that it is meant to be--for each of us has a moral obligation to build for the next generation. There is no finer Aggie tradition than "planning for the future."
In summing up, let me just say that, yes, it was admittedly a terrible tragedy for African Americans and also for Texas, that the first effort to reconstruct Texas ultimately failed, but the real tragedy would have been if the African Americans who served in the 12th Texas Legislature, would have been completely forgotten. Thus it is gratifying and exciting, and proper and fitting, just and right, although long overdue, that Texas A&M University will honor State Senator Matthew Gaines and thus guarantee that the legacy bequeathed to all Aggies by freedom's first generation of black Texans will not be forgotten a second time.
Return to the MATTHEW GAINES MEMORIAL homepage.