By Alix P ’18
Few Aggies know of Matthew Gaines, former slave-turned-senator who was a tireless advocate for the historic land grant act that established Texas A&M University. But sophomore political science student and president of the Matthew Gaines Task Force Erica Pauls knows of his poignant place in history, and she is wasting no time in advocating for his recognition.
“When you think of Texas A&M’s founding story, there is no one who really comes to mind as a key person for that event,” Pauls said. “People know Sul Ross saved the University and General Rudder re-created it, but I think it’s important to know that Matthew Gaines is largely responsible for the creation of Texas A&M University.”
Why ‘We are the Aggies’
As president of the Matthew Gaines Task Force, Pauls seeks to raise both funds and awareness for honoring the contribution of Gaines by establishing a statue of him on the Texas A&M campus. Gaines was a slave in Fredericksburg, Texas until the 1863 emancipation. During his time in slavery, he smuggled books and taught himself to read by candlelight. He was elected as a Texas State Senator in 1869—one of only three men to serve as the first African Americans in Texas Senate.
Gaines was known as a passionate and persuasive speaker during his service in the 12th, 13th, and 14th legislatures. Coming from a background of slavery and being denied an education, he championed the rights for education and African Americans in public life, and specifically to have education available to the public.
Gaines unwaveringly supported the Morrill Act—the land-grant college act that would allow for the creation of a public university. He was instrumental in the passing of this bill. Because of it, the first public school system for all Texans was created in 1871: the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, renamed Texas A&M University in 1963.
“Matthew Gaines is a primary reason ‘we are the Aggies,’” Pauls said. “He played an instrumental role in the founding of our university, so we want to honor him and give credit where credit is due.”
Legacy of Leadership
Pauls is certainly following in the footsteps of Gaines’s leadership. She became the president of the Matthew Gaines Task Force by taking the initiative and asking for it—and her proven dedication granted her the position. She desires to honor the story of Gaines as someone who deserves recognition, and believes now is the time in history where everyone can be recognized.
Serving as the president of the task force is only one avenue of leadership that Pauls is pursuing. She chose to study political science to learn how to be a leader and learn how other people lead; she chose to become the president of the task force in order to put her in a position that was new and uncomfortable, and experience different types of leadership in different contexts.
“I am already seeing my liberal arts education as useful in all realms of my life, from studying the philosophy of leadership in political science, to public speaking, and learning how to work with different kinds of people,” Pauls said. “But learning to value the art of communication and understanding other people—that has been the most valuable thing.”
Even more, Pauls is leading by living out her belief that it is invaluable to recognize a person of color’s significant contribution to Texas A&M’s history, especially in this time in our society.
“This initiative shows that someone like me—a person of color—contributed in a big way to the past. Recognition gives hope for the future, that you can do the same,” she said.
The goal of the task force is to raise $350,000 by 2020 through endowments for the statue and a scholarship honoring the legacy of Gaines. Pauls believes it’s imperative to know that the initiative to honor Gains has been going on for many years—since 1996—and will not give up until it’s accomplished.
“We don’t want to be a part of ignoring great strides in history,” Pauls said. “Recognizing people like Matthew Gaines honors the victories of the past and allows it to happen again in the future.”
On Sept. 1, 2022, the Department of Political Science became part of the Bush School of Government & Public Service.