Giants of Texas History
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Early African-American Senators
Note: For more complete information on 19th century African-American politicians of Texas, visit our Forever Free online exhibit.
The right to participate in politics was hard won for African-American Texans. After emancipation, African-Americans were still denied the right to vote or to hold political office. It was not until Reconstruction of the former Confederate states began that African-Americans were able to register to vote and participate in political life.
During this era, three African-Americans won election to the Texas Senate (with thirty-two others serving in the Texas House of Representatives).
Image: George T. Ruby. George Thompson Ruby was born a free man in New York in 1841. Ruby was educated in Maine, then went to Haiti as a journalist. After the end of the Civil War, Ruby returned to the United States and worked as a journalist, educator, and agent for the Freedmen's Bureau, an organization that helped former slaves establish themselves in a new life. In 1869, Ruby was appointed deputy collector of customs at Galveston. Ruby was active in the Republican party, serving in 1868 as a delegate to the national Republican convention and to the state Constitutional Convention. In 1869, he was elected to the Texas Senate, and became one of the most influential senators in the 12th and 13th Texas Legislatures. Ruby was at first known as a radical, but he showed himself able to get things done with diplomacy and tact. Ruby successfully pushed railroad and insurance legislation and a provision for the geological and agricultural survey of the state. After the end of Reconstruction, Ruby saw little future for himself in Texas. He did not seek reelection in 1873 and moved back to Louisiana, where he continued to work in civic affairs and in journalism until his death in 1882. Handbook of Texas article on George T. Ruby
Image: Matt Gaines. Matt Gaines was born a slave in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1840. Gaines secretly taught himself to read by candlelight with books smuggled to him by a white friend. He escaped slavery twice, once in Louisiana and once in Texas, where he attempted to flee to Mexico. He was caught and returned to slavery, where he worked as a blacksmith and sheepherder. After emancipation, Gaines settled in Washington County, where he became a minister. Gaines was known for his powerful and persuasive speaking. In 1869, Gaines was elected to the Texas Senate and served in the 12th, 13th, and 14th legislatures. He crusaded tirelessly for education, prison reform, tenant-farming reform, and the participation of African-Americans in public life. After leaving the Senate in 1873, he continued his activism from the pulpit, sharing in the hardships of his people and encouraging them not to give up the struggle for their full rights as citizens. He died in Giddings, Texas in 1900. Handbook of Texas article on Matt Gaines
Image: Walter Burton. Walter Burton was born a slave in North Carolina in 1829. Burton came to Texas at age 21 with his master, Thomas Burke Burton. Walter Burton was taught to read by Thomas Burton, and after emancipation Thomas Burton sold him several large plots of land in Fort Bend County, making Walter Burton one of the wealthiest and influential African-Americans in the county. Burton was elected sherriff and tax collector of Fort Bend County in 1869 and won election to the Texas Senate in 1873. He championed education and helped establish Prairie View Normal School (now Prairie View A&M University). He left the Senate in 1882, but continued to be active in politics until his death in 1913. Handbook of Texas article on Walter M. Burton