The university has responded to the vandal attack on the Sol Ross statue by announcing that it will erect a compensatory statue of Matthew Gaines, a Black State Senator of the Reconstruction era. The President tells us that Gaines played “an important part” in passing the legislation that established this university in 1871, but this is polite exaggeration. The enabling legislation was, to be sure, part of the Radical Republican program of Governor Edmund Davis, and Gains very likely voted for it as a loyal member of Davis’s Radical Republican machine, but his service to the university was really very small.
This does not mean that the university should not put up a statue, since Gaines was an interesting character, and looking at his likeness will give all of us something to think about.
Matthew Gaines was born a slave in Pineville, Louisiana, around 1840.* He was the property of a French Creole who was married to a Spanish-speaking Tejano, which is to say Texan with Mexican ancestors. When the widow of this Creole planter died, Gaines was sold, resold, and then brought to Texas by Christopher Columbus Hearne, for whom the neighboring town of Hearne is named. Gaines worked on Hearne’s plantation from 1859 until 1863, when he escaped to the Texas frontier. After the war, Gaines returned to central Texas and settled in nearby Washington County, then the richest and most developed agricultural district in the State. Gaines was self-educated and a natural orator, and so followed the vocation of itinerant preacher.
In 1869, Gaines lent his oratorical gifts to the gubernatorial campaign of Edmund Davis, a Republican who had fought in the Union Army and was now the instrument of Radical Reconstruction in Texas. The Black population of Washington County was very large, Confederate veterans had been stripped of the vote, and the large German community (which had opposed secession) was at first sympathetic to the Radical Republican program.
Thus, Germans and the newly enfranchised Blacks of Washington County were able to vote Davis into the Governors’ office, and Matthew Gaines rode his coat-tails into the State Senate. Because of their reliance on the votes of freedmen, the party of Davis and Gaines was also known as the “Black Republicans,” and they dominated Texas State politics for the next four years.
When Gaines ran for his second term in 1871, he gave a speech to the Black Republicans of Washington County, and in it explained how political power works in a democracy.
“The white vote [in Washington county] is 1553, and only about twenty-five of them vote the Republican ticket. The colored vote is 2745, and they are all Republicans. It is time to look at the great power we possess. It is a sin to have power and not use it. We could put a bull in office if we wanted to . . . we could send a jackass to Congress.”**
Gaines was a combative politician whose primary loyalty was to his fellow Blacks, and he urged Blacks to seize political power through bloc voting, and then use that political power for Black advantage.
“There is no use in having strength unless you use it. If a white man comes along with a little sugar on a stick . . . remember it was the white men in 1856 who passed a law to brand you on the cheek with the letter C, and to have you punished with a bull whip.”**
Gaines thus became the Black face of Radical Reconstruction in Texas. He for instance advocated confiscatory taxation to ruin white landowners and reward landless Blacks.
“There is no way left but to tax and sell [land on which back taxes are owed], so as to get cheap homes [for landless Blacks]. If there is any virtue in taxation, we will tax them [white landowners] until we tax them out of their lands.”**
“We have dealt very lightly with the white man, been exceedingly kind in not confiscating their land and horses.”**
With this sort of language, Gaines was naturally feared and hated by Democrats and Conservatives. Republicans said these new taxes were necessary to support the Republicans’ new system of free government schools, and Gaines took the radical position that these government schools must be public schools with their doors “thrown open to all.” Gaines was himself very likely a mulatto, so his argument may have had a personal angle, but he phrased it in a way that was calculated to offend white Texans.
“If a white man has a right to crawl into a colored woman’s cabin at night, and have children by her, that child has a right at school to sit by the side of her black child and his white child.”**
Gaines’ ribald rhetoric embarrassed moderate Republicans, whom Gaines further alienated with accusations of insufficient Radicalism. Indeed, it was not long before he denounced white Radicals as swindling carpetbaggers who were happy to win elections with Black votes, but who thereupon did nothing whatever for Blacks. In his 1871 speech in Brenham, the Washington county seat, Gaines told Black voters:
“It is time for colored people to wake up. Little fellows like Clark,*** came down here from Connecticut when everything was in a state of distraction. We were unorganized and did not know what to do, and we took them up—bob-tailed coat, tight pants, little gold-headed cane and all, and we have fed them long enough on our own chicken pie.”**
Gaines was obviously an early and energetic advocate of Black Power, of Black voters organized to elect Black politicians who would enact policies advantageous to Blacks. This is evident in his demand that the Republican party encourage African immigration in order to ensure permanent Black supremacy in places like Washington county, and permanent Republican majorities in state and local elections.
“Is it more impractical to send to Africa today and import colored people here as citizens than it was to send after them in 1846 and bring them here as slaves . . . . Under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, I had a right to send to Africa for our friends, and to keep us from falling into a minority.”**
“I will go to Congress, and make an amendment to the emigration law, and send to Africa for better men than the Dutch [i.e. Germans].”**
Gaines’s demand was ignored and Democrats instead swamped Texas Blacks with immigrants from central Europe, who took the Blacks’ jobs and in most places eventually reduced Blacks an electoral minority. The demography of Washington county still ensured Gaines re-election in 1871, but he made too many enemies in his own party, alienated his German supporters with high taxes, and then lost his last political ally when Governor Davis was turned out of office in 1873.
And by 1873, Gaines needed a powerful political ally. It is not clear who initiated the legal proceedings, but Gaines was indicted for bigamy in 1871, and after may dilatory legal maneuvers, was tried and convicted of the felony in 1873.† Gaines was thus declared ineligible to hold public office early the next year. Thus ended the brief but colorful political career of Matthew Gaines, who spent the rest of his life as an obscure rabble-rouser and country preacher, and who died a poor and forgotten man in 1900.
Forgotten until today, that is!
*) Unless otherwise indicated, historical information comes from Alwyn Barr and Robert A. Calvert, Black Leaders: Texans for their Times (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2007).
**) Matthew Gaines speech to the Black Republicans of Washington county. The Houston Telegraph (June 29, 1871), p. 1.
***) Gaines is referring to William T. Clark, the U.S. congressman who actually secured the Federal land grant that paid for the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas. Clark was a Radical Republican, but he was white and Gaines was angry that the party had nominated him rather than Gaines for the Federal office.
†) Gaines married one woman in 1867, and then without obtaining a divorce, married another in 1870. His defense was that the first marriage was invalid because had been performed by a lay minister, but there seems to be no question he was a statutory bigamist. And thus it was easy to destroy him once he had no powerful friends and he had made himself more trouble than he was worth.