Over his 88 years, Paul L. Gaines, Sr. assembled an impressive list of firsts.
At what was then known as Bridgewater State College, Mr. Gaines served as the institution’s first director of minority affairs. Later in an impressive second act, in 1981 he became the first person of color to serve as mayor of a New England city when he was elected by voters in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. He’d previously been the first Black city council member in the city.
Mr. Gaines died June 25 at his home in Newport. Rhode Island flags were flown at half-staff in his honor.
He began his 37 years in education as a teacher and coach at Thompson Junior High School (now middle school) and at Rogers High School, both in Newport.
Mr. Gaines came to Bridgewater State in 1968, one of just two African-Americans working on campus at the time, and he spent nearly three decades at the institution. Among his many signature achievements was a program called PROGRESS, which aimed to attract more students of color to campus and to support them in their studies. Other schools across the state developed similar versions of the program based on Mr. Gaines’ pioneering work.
“Paul Gaines was ahead of his time in many ways,” said President Clark. “He had a profound impact on this institution and, as in everything he did, worked diligently to improve the lives of others. The Bridgewater you see today is very much the product of Paul’s decades of selfless service. He was a giant in so many ways.”
The youngest of six children, Mr. Gaines was a standout basketball player at Rogers High School. After graduating in 1951, he attended Xavier University in New Orleans on a full scholarship.
Mr. Gaines said that while living in the south, he experienced racism and Jim Crow laws firsthand. On trains, he was forced to sit in a car designated for Black riders. During his time in Louisiana, Mr. Gaines faced segregated restaurants and balconies in movie theaters, as well as separate water fountains for Black people.
It was at Xavier University where he met his future wife, Jo Eva Johnson; the couple was married for 61 years.
After graduating, he served in the U.S. Army in Germany as a radio operator in the Second Armored Division.
Mr. Gaines earned a master’s degree in administration and counseling from Bridgewater State in 1968. Upon graduation, he was offered a job at the college. He also cofounded the college’s African-American Society in 1970.
All the Gaines children – Jena, Patricia, Paulajo and Paul Jr. – attended Bridgewater State, and his wife earned a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study from the college.
Mr. Gaines held several titles during his time at Bridgewater State, though his duties remained focused on recruiting and supporting African-American students. Looking back at his years at the college in 2001, his words bespoke his commitment to his work and, at the same time, were poignantly prescient.
“Bridgewater State College took the lead in assuring diversity and equality. Those were hard times,” he said. “I wanted (PROGRESS) to be woven into the college, not remain a special program. Our goal was to have a campus where the students were just accepted as students, not as minority students.”