Matthew Gaines To Leroy Sterling: 100 Years In The Making
It would take a little over a century from the time Sen. Matthew Gaines helped establish Texas A&M University before the institution admitted Leroy Sterling for two summer school sessions in 1963.
Sterling, who was among the first three Black students to attend Texas A&M, recently returned to campus to visit the statue of Gaines dedicated late last year near the Memorial Student Center and Student Services Building. The bronze statue depicts Gaines, a former state senator, Baptist minister and advocate for the rights of freed people, climbing a set of steps with a stack of books under his left arm.
“I think to recognize Gaines for his contributions, especially as Gaines had been a slave and was educated almost by himself, is outstanding,” said Sterling, who saw the statue in person for the first time on Saturday.
He said it’s significant for the university to recognize Gaines in this way. Born into slavery in 1840, Gaines taught himself how to read using contraband books. Once emancipated, Gaines made his way from Louisiana to Washington County, not far from Bryan-College Station. As part of the 12th Texas Legislature, Gaines was instrumental in ensuring the state took advantage of the federal Morrill Act of 1862, which lead to the creation of U.S. land-grant universities, including the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas.
Despite this, Texas A&M did not accept Black individuals until 1963.
“In my eyes, this is a perfect example of public service: the unadulterated commitment to make a difference in the lives of others regardless of how it impacts yourself,” Mason Alexander-Hawk ’24, Gaines’ great, great, great granddaughter, said at the statue’s dedication ceremony.
Sterling and two others were admitted in summer 1963 as “special students.”
Sterling, a Bryan native, was attending Texas Southern University at the time. He had challenged himself to finish his degree in three years, but was unable to afford to keep living in Houston once his tutoring jobs ended. He moved home to complete the credits he needed at Texas A&M.
Initially, he was rejected, but learned a few weeks later that the university would accept him. Sterling took history and chemistry courses during the two summer sessions he spent at A&M. He taught at Texas Southern University before going on to work for Dow Chemical Company for 17 years. Sterling also taught at Alabama A&M University.
In 2019, former Texas A&M President Michael K. Young awarded Sterling the Pioneer Medal, which honors African Americans admitted to the university between 1963 and 1970.