Bush School graduate Mason Alexander-Hawk learned of her relation to Sen. Matthew Gaines while advocating for his statue on the campus he helped establish.
Story by Caitlin Clark, video by Char Callaway
Note: This story originally appeared in TAMU Today on Feb. 17, 2022
There’s a phone conversation from 2018 that Mason Alexander-Hawk ’24 remembers as a moment that reaffirmed her life choices up until that point.
On the call, she caught up with her grandmother about her first semester of graduate school at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. “You know,” her grandmother had said, “they’re trying to build a statue of your grandfather on campus.”
Alexander-Hawk was well aware of the statue initiative – she had already spent months working with fellow Aggies to recognize Matthew Gaines, who twice escaped slavery before going on to serve in the Texas Legislature during Reconstruction. His advocacy was instrumental in legislation that helped establish U.S. land-grant universities like Texas A&M.
It wasn’t until that phone call, however, that she knew Gaines had any connection to her family.
“I was already a few months into the initiative when I figured out I was his great, great, great granddaughter,” Alexander-Hawk said. “Everything that happened in my life that brought me to A&M, in that moment, I knew was right and I was where I was supposed to be.”
Now a doctoral student in the College of Architecture, Alexander-Hawk was in attendance last November when a bronze statue of her ancestor was unveiled on campus. When she stood behind a podium to speak at the ceremony and struggled to see where the crowd ended – more than 1,000 people attended – Alexander-Hawk realized how much the statue meant to others.
“You could almost feel in the air that day that something historic was happening,” she said. “When they pulled the curtain off the statue, it almost took the breath out of you a little bit.”
Matthew Gaines’ Legacy
For Alexander-Hawk, Gaines is the embodiment of the Aggie core value of selfless service.
Born in 1840 on a plantation in Pineville, La., Gaines was enslaved for the first 25 years of his life. He risked his life two times to escape enslavement, but both times he was captured. Once emancipated, Gaines made his way to Washington County not far from Bryan-College Station, where he emerged as a community leader, became a Baptist preacher and was elected state senator.
Alexander-Hawk said Gaines advocated fearlessly for access to education – he learned to read by candlelight using contraband books – as well as voting rights, prison reform and rights for African-Americans. During his service in the 12th Texas Legislature he helped ensure the state took advantage of the federal Morrill Act of 1862.
That legislation called for land to be granted to states to create higher education institutions like the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, now known as Texas A&M University. The school did not accept Black students until 1963.
“That was a university he couldn’t go to, his kids couldn’t go to, and his grandkids couldn’t go to,” Alexander-Hawk said. “That, to me, is a perfect example of selfless service. That had no impact on him, but he could see his legacy in the future, that his great, great, great granddaughter might be able to go to Texas A&M. That was education he could not have access to, and yet he fiercely fought for the law.”
Becoming involved with the statue initiative as a graduate student was a natural fit for Alexander-Hawk, even before she was aware of their connection. She served on a diversity, equity and inclusion committee at the Bush School, and felt the project forwarded a mission she already felt passionately about.
“I thought that it was really amazing that they were trying to honor this Black man who had such an important impact on A&M’s campus that was not being recognized,” Alexander-Hawk said.
Through the Matthew Gaines Society – Alexander-Hawk serves as the group’s vice president – she helped spread awareness of Gaines’ contributions to gather support for the project from current and former students. The effort began in the 1990s with the formation of the Matthew Gaines Committee, but finally picked up momentum after the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the resulting civil unrest, she said. The student organization was instrumental in raising awareness and the $350,000 needed to build the statue.
On a personal level, advocating for Gaines to be recognized on campus also allowed Alexander-Hawk to reconnect with her father’s side of the family, through which she is a descendant of Gaines.
“It connected me to tons of people I hadn’t spoken to since I was about two,” she said. “It was a full-circle moment, and there’s people from all across the country who flew in for the statue unveiling because of this initiative and how big this movement was to get Matthew Gaines on campus.”
For Alexander-Hawk, the sculpture of Gaines that now stands in the Yolanda and Jimmy ’65 Janacek Plaza serves as a symbol of representation.
“When you walk around campus as a person of color, you can see somebody who looks like you, a Black person,” she said. “Walking by and seeing that statue really shows that you’re welcome here, you’re wanted here, that you have a place here, and you can make an impact.”
A Connection Though Public Service
“Impact” is a word that’s often on Alexander-Hawk’s mind.
She was born in Texas, and grew up with her mother in Portland, Ore. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M International University, Alexander-Hawk returned home to Portland to work with high school students through a nonprofit. This is where she saw the effects that a lack of stable housing had on students’ schoolwork and mental health.
“My reason for leaving the nonprofit was because I wanted to make a bigger impact,” Alexander-Hawk said. In 2018, she moved to College Station to pursue a master’s degree in public service and administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service. There, she focused on nonprofit management and urban sustainability. After earning her master’s degree in 2020, Alexander-Hawk moved on to the College of Architecture. As part of her doctoral studies, Alexander-Hawk researches the intersection of disaster recovery, nonprofits and affordable housing.
Her ultimate goal: consulting or research work that could change affordable housing policy in the U.S.
“I almost have had this awakening that I want to do public service,” Alexander-Hawk said. “The second I started working in a nonprofit, it shifted my perspective on what I wanted to do with my life.
Now knowing she’s the descendant of the “epitome of a public servant,” Alexander-Hawk said, she feels confident that Texas A&M “is where I’m supposed to be.”