A Good and Faithful Servant: The Rev. Thomas W. Cain

Defying odds, challenging systems, and keeping the faith, were the ongoing struggles of the African American preacher. At times it may have seemed that he carried the weight of the world, but if not the world, then certainly the weight of a people.

The world has been plagued by divisions since nearly its beginning, and perhaps the Church, as well. The world and the Church have persevered, however, despite attitudes of racism and prejudice where the spirit of God has prevailed and where human hearts were willing. Movement beyond such attitudes has in the past called for, and continues to call for, bold leadership, visionary action and uncompromising faith. Whether led by providence or genius, the action of Bishop Alexander Gregg in bringing the Rev. Thomas Cain to Texas, would prove to be the necessary bold and visionary action that would at least put a crack in the wall of unbending misconceptions and hardened attitudes about people of color. During the time he served as Vicar of St. Augustine’s Mission for Colored People in Galveston from 1888 until his death in 1900, the Rev. Thomas W. Cain served as a healing force, an agent of change, an activist and torchbearer in the Church and community.

No doubt, there was something exceptional about the Rev. Thomas White Cain, a pioneer in Black ministries and the cause of social justice in Texas and beyond. Whether traveling the state or the country to raise funds for St. Augustine’s, challenging the Jim Crow laws of the South, leading his people in the fight against Yellow Fever, or struggling to have a voice and a seat among his fellow Episcopalians, the challenges were great, but so were the strides he made.

Born in 1843, Thomas W. Cain had many obstacles to overcome. A former slave, he was the first Black candidate for Holy Orders in the state of Virginia and was a graduate of the very first graduating class of the Bishop Payne Seminary for Negroes in Petersburg, Virginia. After ten years of service in Virginia, he was brought to Texas to serve as the second Vicar of St. Augustine’s in Galveston. Having been in the Diocese of Texas for just a year, he was elected to represent the Diocese at the General Convention of 1889 as one of the two first Black priests in the Church to be elected to do so. When he was elected again as a delegate to the 1892 General Convention, he became the first to serve as a delegate twice.

But hardly a victory could be won without the reminders and the challenges of what it meant to be, as Langston Hughes put it, the “darker brother.” Prior to his attending the General Convention of 1889, the following was written in “The Churchman,” volume 60:  “There is to be at least one colored priest at the next Episcopal General Convention—The Rev. Thomas Cain of Texas, who was a slave before the war, and who has entered the ministry of the church in the regular way. Will South Carolina refuse to sit in the convention with him? Will the convention refuse him a seat? It will be interesting if it does; it will be embarrassing if it doesn’t.” Neither of these scenarios occurred. The Church is much too dignified for that. But even today, questions about seating remain in some of our churches, not so much whether people of another race or category will be denied a seat, but how we will greet them should they elect to come and sit and whether we will sit with them if they do.

The Rev. Cain’s influence stretched far and wide, reaching beyond the Church and beyond his immediate community. His boldness of action and demands for social justice threatened to shake the foundation of the Jim Crow laws that impacted so many people of color living in the South, especially those who travelled by rail car.

On September 15, 1893, Rev. Cain, preparing to return from a trip to St. Louis, Missouri, purchased a ticket for rail travel home and paid an extra fare for a berth in a Pullman car. The trip started out fine until he reached Longview, Texas. There, the Pullman car in which he was riding was switched onto an International & Great Northern Railroad Company train bound for Galveston. When the train reached the Smith County town of Troup, Texas, the I. & G. N. trainmaster announced to Rev. Cain that he could not remain in the sleeping car with White passengers because it was a violation of a new state law that required separate coaches for White and Black passengers. Rev. Cain was then ordered to move from his Pullman car to a day coach assigned to Blacks only. He objected, but to no avail. The I. & G. N. official ordered him removed from the Pullman car, and he was placed on a “Blacks only” day coach where he remained for the duration of the trip to Galveston. As compensation for him not being able to finish his travel in the Pullman car, they refunded him $2, the cost of the fare for Pullman travel for the remainder of his journey.

But the Rev. Cain, did not respond to this treatment without protest. When he got home, he promptly filed a lawsuit against the I. & G. N. and the Pullman companies in Galveston County District Court. He sought damages of $5,000 for, as the Galveston Daily News put it, for “wrongful ejection from a sleeping car.” A trial resulted in a verdict in his favor, but with an award of only $100 for damages. Pullman appealed the verdict to the Texas Court of Civil Appeals, but the appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision favoring the Rev. Cain. Clearly, the Rev. Cain’s actions and leadership were indication that he was not hesitant to take a seat or claim the seat that he felt was due him, and by doing so, he was opening the door for others, like himself, to fight for equal justice.

In spite of the many battles that the Rev. Thomas W. Cain would fight and win in his life, it would ultimately be the battle against nature and inevitability to which he would succumb. Tragically, the Rev. Cain’s life, along with his wife, came to an end during the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston Island and killed some 6,000 residents. He, his wife, and several church members were swept out to sea and drowned. Their house and St. Augustine’s chapel were among the ruins of the city. On the morning after the storm the Rev. Cain’s body was found by a young man from Trinity Parish and was buried on the beach, with a temporary headstone to mark the grave.  Later, he was reinterred in a ceremony presided over by Bishop Kinsolving.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.” The Rev. Thomas W. Cain stood heads above many in the face of controversy and challenges in the community where he lived, the Church that he loved and served, the lives that he changed, and upon the thresholds that he crossed to make us a better Church and the world in which he lived a better place.

And for his so doing, we can even now hear echoes from Matthew 25 reverberating through time and the recalling of his story, saying: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” You have been faithful in the things I have given you. Come, enter into the joy of your Lord!

(Sources for this story : “Curtains for Jim Crow: Law, Race, and the Texas Railroads” by William S. Osborn, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 2002; “Rector raised Cain with ‘Jim Crow’ by Van Craddock, Longview News Journal, 2014; History of St. Augustine of Hippo Church; Council notes)


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