Hundreds of people gathered around on the Yolanda and Jimmy Janacek Plaza on Friday afternoon to celebrate the legacy of Sen. Matthew Gaines with the unveiling and dedication of the newest statue on the Texas A&M campus.
As a member of the 12th Texas Legislature, Gaines advocated for the passage of Senate Bill No. 276, which allowed the state to take advantage of the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, leading to the founding of the state’s two land grant universities: Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas – now Texas A&M – and Prairie View A&M.
Tim Scott, interim provost and executive vice president at Texas A&M, said while the university has outgrown its agriculture and mechanical roots, its mission to provide high-quality education, research and leadership to all students as a land grant university remains in place.
“Today with this statue, we are reminded of the visionary leadership of Matthew Gaines,” he said. “We are reminded of the importance of education to our society. We are mindful that the Aggie family is rich and diverse. We are reminded that our land grant mission calls us to serve all the citizens of this great state, and it reminds us that this love of place and the critical role of education unites us together regardless of our differences.”
He called on everyone in attendance to rededicate themselves to Gaines’ “guiding principles” of access, determination, the power of higher education and visionary leadership.
Gaines, a former slave who taught himself to read using contraband books, was one of two Black senators – the first from Washington County – and 12 Black representatives in the 12th Texas Legislature in 1870, according to the inscription on the statue. Designed by David Alan and MJ Clark in Wyoming, the statue features Gaines climbing a set of stairs, books in one hand with the other arm outstretched.
Bill Mahomes Jr., vice chairman of the Texas A&M System Board of Regents, said the event is one that has been generations in the making and will strengthen the university for generations to come.
“Like all the donors to this statue, Chancellor [John] Sharp, my fellow regents, and I understand the need to make sure that each and every student who walks this campus can look up and see themselves and their aspirations in the historic icons on the Aggie campus,” he said. “That each and every student can see themselves succeeding here, can see themselves as part of the extraordinary bond that makes Texas A&M special. This university was created for people of humble beginnings, who have the drive to succeed and passion to serve others. Who better for us to look up to than Sen. Matthew Gaines?”
When thinking about Gaines’ legacy, Mahomes said, he is reminded of the quotes that describe a person’s willingness to plant a tree knowing they will never benefit from its shade.
“Mr. Gaines devoted much of his life to serving others,” Mahomes, a 1969 Texas A&M graduate, said. “He knew that education was foundational to achievement of true freedom of opportunity for everyone. … As an undergraduate, I did not realize or didn’t know yet, but I sat under the shade of Matthew Gaines’ accomplishments. Because of Mr. Gaines and others who followed his example, I, along with others, was able to come to Texas A&M. I was able to meet some challenges and benefit from a first-class education. I was able to successfully graduate from the Corps of Cadets. I was able to see myself as part of the extraordinary bond that makes Texas A&M special.”
Mason Alexander-Hawk, vice president of the Matthew Gaines Society and great-great-great-granddaughter of Gaines, said the only word she could find to best describe Gaines is legacy.
“Legacy is when you are genuinely convicted in offering yourself to serve a cause greater than your own in order to make a meaningful and lasting contribution to humanity,” she said. “Legacy is generational; where your impact on people and places far succeeds past your life. Legacy is the mark you leave on the world. Sen. Matthew Gaines’ legacy is undeniable. Not only is Matthew Gaines a figure of perseverance and resilience, he is also a true representation of the Aggie core values: loyalty, integrity, excellence, leadership, respect and selfless service.”
The work to acknowledge Gaines’ contributions to Texas and to Texas A&M began nearly 30 years ago and had been taken up most recently by the Matthew Gaines Society.
The decades-long effort found the push it needed in the summer of 2020 when, she said, “We as a nation were forced to address issues of systemic racism.” Within a matter of months, she said, the organization raised more than $350,000, including a $100,000 donation from Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, who posed for pictures with members of the Matthew Gaines Society.
“This statue is symbolic,” she said. “This statue is representation. This statue is history. And I am so thankful to be here today to celebrate this moment with you all.”
In addition to Alexander-Hawk, many other direct descendants of Gaines attended the ceremony, including great-, great-great and great-great-great grandchildren of the senator who was born in 1840 and died in 1900.
Lisa Alexander-Jenkins, Gaines’ great-granddaughter, said Gaines’ contributions were not included in history books when she was growing up, and was happy to see his legacy as a senator, orator, preacher and community leader honored so prominently on campus.
She called it “indescribable” to be a part of Gaines’ legacy.
“When you realize that someone in your family line or family history has done such amazing things, you kind of wonder what it is that you can contribute,” said said.
Growing up knowing education was a tool to open doors, Alexander-Jenkins is glad so many of Gaines’ descendants have gone on to become educators, lawyers, preachers and scholars.
“He was not afraid to speak his mind and to speak up for the underdogs,” she said. “He wanted everybody to have an opportunity, so being a part of his family, really challenges us as a family to live up to that legacy and be a part of our communities and continue to give back.”
Solomon Bolden, 8, said it felt amazing to stand next to the statue of his great-great-great-grandfather.
Ever since his dad, Daniel, had told him about Gaines, he wanted to see the bronze depiction of his ancestor.
“I was just waiting for this moment, all this time,” Solomon said. “… I was just so happy that it’s finally done, but we still have lots to do and lots of work to do.”
To continue the legacy Gaines established, Solomon said he plans to be a leader, just like his forebear.
Alexander-Jenkins said she is glad to know people who did not recognize Gaines’ name will know it now and know his contributions.
“They’ll know why this statute is here, and hopefully they’ll share with others,” she said. “… We want everybody to know that ‘Everybody Gaines.’ I love that little catchphrase. It’s so appropriate.”
Aketch Osamba, president of the Matthew Gaines Society, said the catchphrase is more than a tagline or a hashtag.
“It serves as representations that Aggies, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion or background, can make a lasting impact on campus, even if they’re unable to see the effects of their time here,” Osamba said.