The Matthew Gaines Memorial

[Remarks of Dale Baum on the status of the Matthew Gaines project]

The President's Advisory Committee on Art Policy has proposed the erection of a statue on the Texas A&M University campus to a former slave.


The last three years have witnessed a remarkable popular movement to build a statue on the Texas A&M campus in honor of a ex-slave. Matthew Gaines was, during the period of Reconstruction following the American Civil War, the first African-American state senator from Washington County. He became a courageous leader in the 12th Texas Legislature that established a system of statewide free public education and enabled the founding of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. The movement to recognize his accomplishments grew initially from an recommendation by the Aggie Republicans, and subsequently from enthusiastic support from the TAMU Black Former Student Association, and finally from endorsements by The Battalion and many student leaders and faculty members. Out of a diverse and ad hoc group evolved a committee that now formally represents Texas A&M University. Much work, however, remains to be done. Indeed, four monumental tasks remain: (1) fundraising for the project, which will cost around $200,000.00; (2) selection of a location for the statue; (3) a process to select an artist; and (4) a public relations campaign to make the University community aware of the project and of Gaines's accomplishments. Opportunities thus still abound for students to be involved in leadership roles in this exciting and important project.

Two questions commonly arise in any discussion of the Gaines project. Precisely how much do we know about Matthew Gaines himself? Moreover, if he had more to do with the establishment of Texas A&M University than anyone who currently is honored on campus with a statue, or with a building, boulevard, or street, then how can we possibly 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?

The launching point for studying Gaines begins with the work of three historians, Ann Patton Malone, Merline Pitre, and Donald G. Nieman. Malone's frequently cited essay introduces a massive amount of insightful information on Gaines, while Pitre's book on Texas black leaders and her synopsis for The New Handbook of Texas are the basis for the summary of Gaines's life that follows here. Nieman, on the other hand, presents a revealing look at the local circumstances in which Gaines operated in Washington County, a postwar Texas county that ranked first in the state in the number of black inhabitants. Historians of Texas history complain that the information provided by these authors appears, unfortunately, with unsettling recurrence. Nevertheless, the future promises forthcoming material, especially about the subtleties of what Gaines and other black lawmakers endured and how they went about their duties. Future research promises to yield a new and fuller picture of what the black political experience was like during Reconstruction.

Gaines was born on August 4, 1840, near Alexandria, Louisiana, to an unknown female slave owned by Martin G. Despallier. Gaines allegedly taught himself how to read from books smuggled to him by a white youth who lived on the Despallier plantation. He was subsequently sold as part of the Despallier estate to a Louisiana man who hired him out as a steamboat laborer. Using a falsified pass, Gaines ran away to Arkansas, then made his way to New Orleans where he was captured and returned to his master. In 1859 Gaines was sold to a slave trader who, in turn, sold Gaines to Christopher Columbus Hearne, a wealthy Texas cotton planter from Robertson County. Gaines labored on one of the Hearne family plantations until 1863 when he attempted to flee to freedom in Mexico. He made it as far as Fort McKavett before being apprehended. He was taken under guard to Fredericksburg, a German-Texan frontier community that had opposed secession from the Union. For the duration of the war he worked, apparently still under arrest as a runaway slave, as a blacksmith and a sheepherder. No attempt, however, was made to return him to Robertson County. After emancipation, Gaines came back to the Brazos River bottomlands, settling eventually in Burton in Washington County, where he rapidly established himself as a leader of the freedmen, both as a Baptist preacher and a politician.

In 1869 Gaines was elected as a senator to represent the Sixteenth District in the state legislature. He quickly earned a reputation for being a vigilant guardian of the newly-won rights of African-Texans. He aggressively addressed the issues of public education, prison reform, the protection of black voters from white terrorism at the polling places, and tenant farming reform. Gaines successfully sponsored a bill that called for exempting local educational and religious organizations, along with their buildings and equipment used in their charitable or literary endeavors, from taxation. He also aided in securing passage of a bill allowing his district to levy a special tax for construction of a new jail. His interest in prison reform stemmed from his concern for the protection of blacks from mob violence. He passionately argued for the creation of a state militia that would protect blacks in the exercise of their right to vote. Gaines also courageously fought for, but failed to have the legislature enact his bill to give tenant farmers the first lien on their crops. Knowing the importance of the black vote to the Texas Republican Party, Gaines made a strong, but unsuccessful, bid to elect a black to Congress from the Third District, which included Washington, Harris, and Galveston Counties.

Gaines 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. Like Gaines, all these thirteen other black lawmakers were Republicans and all but one had been former slaves. Gaines was their leader in the legislature. Collectively, these men, who were among the most dynamic black leaders of their day, represented the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of newly freed Texas slaves. Without their leadership and without the votes cast in 1869 by the freedmen, 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 Texas history--an unprecedented period in which African-Texans experienced for a movement a semblance of justice. Moreover, during this period, the Davis Administration and the Texas legislature did more for public education than any governor or legislature that had preceded them. Gaines, along with all the other black Republican members of the legislature, had a majestic reverence for education, viewing it as a key to the advancement of their race.

Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University are today the only two tangible achievements of the biracial 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.

Gaines himself fell victim to unjust tactics. Denounced on the Senate floor by a Democratic opponent as a "flat-footer [sic] nigger" and threatened with death outside the legislature by racist whites, Gaines was indicted in 1871 on a charge of bigamy by a grand jury at La Grange in Fayette County. He was convicted of the charge in 1873, but in the same year the charge was overturned on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. Subsequently, Gaines was reelected to the senate of the Democratic-dominated Thirteenth Legislature, but his seat was successfully challenged by the candidate whom Gaines had defeated. In a farcical procedure that ignored the ruling in his favor by the high court, Gaines was neither represented by counsel nor given an opportunity to testify before the senate committee on privileges and elections. Without political connections, Gaines's career was over.

The Texas Supreme Court‘s decision, then as now, is a matter of public record (Gaines v. State {606}--Texas Supreme Court, M6816 [1873]), but the Democratic press unfairly continued to allude to Gaines as a convicted felon who had somehow managed to avoid serving his term. Gaines never lived with two wives simultaneously, and he genuinely never doubted that his first marriage had been illegally performed and that filing for a divorce had thus been unnecessary. Nor did anyone who knew him personally ever assume otherwise. After his expulsion from the legislature, Gaines continued to voice his political views in public gatherings and from the pulpit. He died on June 11, 1900, in Giddings where he was buried in an unmarked gave in the black section of the town cemetery.

Once in power the Democrats destroyed most of the initiatives that Gaines and the Republicans had enacted. They dismantled the state police, the state militia, and the entire public school system. (It was not until 1943 that genuinely free, tax-supported public schools were resurrected.) The Democrats replaced the 1869 Reconstruction constitution (the finest constitution Texas has ever had) with a "horse and buggy" constitution that has hampered sound and progressive changes down to this very day--for it still requires amendments 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 freedmen. They made the A. and M. College of Texas part of the nonexistent University of Texas, at times cut state funding for the College 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 working basis were not provided until the early 20th century. As late as 1914 the Texas legislature came within a handful of votes from moving 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 idea 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, such as Matthew Gaines, 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 Texas A&M University.

What was real about the origins of Texas's two land-grant universities? Before the Civil War most Southerners and Democrats had been opposed to the idea of using the proceeds of the sales of federal land for establishing colleges for the teaching of what was commonly referred to as "agricultural and mechanical arts." Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had spoken for most Southerners and Texans when he denounced the land-grant proposals as potentially dangerous invasions by the federal government into the domestic rights of the states. Most of the Texas congressional delegation agreed. The logic of Southern opposition becomes clear when we recall that the most sacred domestic right of the antebellum Southern states was the right to enslave large segments of their own populations. If the federal government were given the power to intercede into the relationship between schools and their students, might not the relationship between masters and their slaves be the next target of federal intervention?

During the Civil War many modernizing and egalitarian Northern ideas were freed from the Southern ideology of states' rights and limited government. 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, Democratic opponents in Texas feared that if "carpet bag heroes" and "vagabond politicians" secured "a place in the Agricultural College," they would be "worse than the Egyptian blight." Moreover, why support higher education for ex-slaves? Would not this be a waste of taxpayer money and lead only to the destruction of good field hands? Because at this time Texas Democrats were essentially defined by their opposition to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution, equal educational opportunities for blacks were considered by most white Texans as just another "evil" of Reconstruction.

Unequivocally, 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 also direct legatees of the African American lawmakers, and especially their leader, Matthew Gaines, who served in the 12th Texas Legislature. Gaines's progressive and egalitarian investment in 1871 in the future of education laid the essential foundations for the building of the modern-day Texas A&M University--which we proudly hail today as "the first state institution of higher learning in Texas." Aggies today stand on the shoulders of a former slave who, in the words of the editorial board of The Battalion, "was a personification of the many qualities this University has stood for in the past and will continue to stand for in the future--pride, honor, leadership and educational excellence."

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 a farsighted Texas leader like Matthew Gaines were completely forgotten. For years his name was omitted from general historical accounts, but his legacy embodied the heroic moral principle that what is right, although temporarily defeated, will always be stronger than wrong triumphant. Gaines believed in a "new day" that would usher in social justice, peace, and fellowship among all Texans. His vision was as important as his accomplishments. Thus it is gratifying and exciting, and proper and fitting, that Texas A&M University will eventually 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.

Bibliography and suggested readings:

Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of Negroes in Texas, 1528-1971 (Austin: Jenkins Publishing Company, 1982), pp. 39-69.

The Battalian EDITORIAL: "Matthew Gaines: The former senator deserves recognition for his contributions" (July 27, 1995), p. 5.

Semi-Weekly Brenham Banner, August 4, 1871.

Randolph B. Campbell, "Carpetbagger Rule in Reconstruction Texas: An Enduring Myth," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 97 (April 1994): 587-596.

Barry A. Crouch, "'Unmanacling' Texas Reconstruction: A Twenty-Year Perspective," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93 (January 1990): 275-302.

John Pressley Carrier, "A Political History of Texas During the Reconstruction, 1865-1874" (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1971).

Daily State Journal (Austin), April 11, 1871.

Eric Foner, Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 80-81.

William T. Hooper, Jr., "Governor Edmund J. Davis, Ezra Cornell, and the A&M College of Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 78 (January 1975): 307-312.

Ann Patton Malone, "Matt Gaines: Reconstruction Politician, in Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times, edited by Alwyn Barr and Robert A. Calvert (Austin: The Texas State Historical Association, 1981), pp. 49-81.

Richard R. Moore, "Reconstruction" in Ben Proctor and Archie P. McDonald, The Texas Heritage (St. Louis, Missouri: The Forum Press, 1980), pp. 95-107.

Carl H. Moneyhon, Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1980 and "George T. Ruby and the Politics of Expediency in Texas," in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982).

Donald G. Nieman, "Black Political Power and Justice: The Case of Washington County, Texas, 1865-1890" (a paper presented at the Texas State Historical Association annual meeting, Austin, Texas, March 4, 1994) and "Black Political Power and Criminal Justice: Washington County, Texas, 1868-1884," Journal of Southern History 55 (August 1989): 391-420.

Merline Pitre, Through Many Dangers Toils and Snares: Black Leadership in Texas, 1868-1900 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1985).

James M. Smallwood, Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans During Reconstruction (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1981), pp. 128-158.

Marie Guy Tomlinson, "The State Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas, 1871-1879: The Personalities, Politics, and Uncertainties" (2vols., M.A. thesis: Texas A&M University, 1976).


[Dale Baum is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M. He currently serves as the non-student co-chair of the Historical Research Subcommittee of the Matthew Gaines Memorial Committee, which is a subcommittee of the President's Advisory Committee on Art Policy.] Anyone interested in working on the Gaines project is encouraged to contact Tim Novak in the MSC Forsyth Center Galleries.


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