Matthew Gaines, Black senator and Baptist preacher, was born on August 4, 1840, to a slave mother on the plantation of Bernardo Martin Despallier in Pineville, near Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana. Her owner was widow Candida Grande Despallier, mother of Alamo hero Charles Despallier. Gaines biographies mention that in the old Despallier house, English, French, and Spanish were spoken, which is very probable because Bernardo Martin Despallier was of French descent, and he had worked for the Spanish in both Louisiana and Texas. Grande was of Spanish descent. Matthew Gaines learned to read by candlelight from books smuggled to him by a white boy who lived on the same plantation. Gaines, however, never told who the boy was, but it may have been young Blaz Philipe II Despallier. The boys were about the same age, and Blaz did attend school.
Gaines escaped to freedom twice but each time was caught and returned to slavery. His first escape came after 1850, when he was sold to a man from Louisiana and was subsequently hired out as a laborer on a steamboat. Using a false pass, he escaped to Camden, Arkansas. He left Arkansas six months afterwards and made his way to New Orleans, where he was caught and brought back to his master. Later, Gaines was sold to a Texas planter from Robertson County, and in 1863 he made another escape attempt. His destination was Mexico, but he made it only as far as Fort McKavett in Menard County before being caught by the Texas Rangers. He was taken back to Fredericksburg and remained in that area until the end of the Civil War. During his tenure as a slave in Fredericksburg, Gaines worked as a blacksmith and a sheepherder. After Emancipation Gaines settled in Burton, Washington County, where he soon established himself as a leader of the Black community, both as a minister and a politician. During Reconstruction he was elected as a senator to represent the Sixteenth District in the Texas legislature.
Gaines was a vigilant guardian of the rights and interests of African Americans. Among the many issues he addressed were education, prison reform, the protection of Blacks at the polls, the election of Blacks to public office, and tenant-farming reform. To encourage educational and religious groups to work toward educational improvement in their communities, Gaines sponsored a bill that called for exempting such organizations from taxation. Buildings and equipment used for charitable or literary associations were also exempted; the bill became law on June 12, 1871. Gaines was also responsible for the passage of a bill authorizing his district to levy a special tax for construction of a new jail. His concern for prison reform stemmed from his concern for the protection of Blacks from mob violence. In keeping with this belief, Gaines waged an unrelenting war in the Senate for the passage of the Militia Bill. It was Gaines's feeling that if Blacks were protected (via the Militia Bill) in the exercising of the Fifteenth Amendment, they could make a difference at the polls. Hence, after the successful passage of the Militia Bill, Gaines made a concerted, but unsuccessful, effort to drum up support to elect a Black Texan to the United States House of Representatives. Gaines was very sympathetic to the plight of the Black masses. He was one of the few Blacks who served in the legislature from 1870 to 1900 to voice an opinion in opposition to the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1872. As such, he proposed a law (which failed) to give the tenant the first lien on the crop. (see FARM TENANCY.)
Gaines was elected to a six-year term to the Senate, but served only four years because his seat was challenged when he was convicted on the charge of bigamy in 1873, and he subsequently relinquished his post. The charge was overturned on appeal, and he was reelected, but the Democratic and white majority seated his opponent. Gaines continued to be active in politics and made his political views known in conventions, public gatherings, and from his pulpit. He died in Giddings, Texas, on June 11, 1900.