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Rhode Island’s first Black mayor, Army veteran Paul Gaines, dies at 88

Paul Gaines, who died Thursday at age 88, served as Newport's mayor from 1981-1983. He was the state's first Black mayor.

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By SEAN FLYNN | Newport Daily News, R.I. | Published: June 26, 2020

NEWPORT, R.I. (Tribune News Service) — Paul Gaines, the first and only Black mayor of any city in Rhode Island and beloved throughout the community, died Thursday at the age of 88.

When he became mayor of Newport in 1981, he was hailed as first African American mayor in New England. He was a former teacher and coach at Thompson Junior High School (now middle school) and at Rogers High School, then served as a top administrator at Bridgewater State College (now university) for many years, capping a 37-year career in education.

There is a long list of community organizations and projects he was involved in during his life.

Jo Eva Gaines, his wife of 61 years, said he died of bladder cancer, for which he was diagnosed four years ago but did not tell anybody.

Gaines always did things in an understated way, seemingly getting along with everyone and avoiding drama when it came to him personally.

"He was treated for the cancer on an outpatient basis," Jo Eva Gaines said. "He told me he had pre-cancerous polyps."

This year though, on the day before Memorial Day, Gaines went to the emergency department at Newport Hospital for bleeding. His wife found out he had been offered surgery for the bladder cancer last year and refused.

Gaines was soon transferred to Miriam Hospital, where he stayed for three weeks until being released to home care with Hospice.

"He lasted 10 days at home," Jo Eva Gaines said.

Among the many roles Gaines took on was serving as chairman of the Newport County Community Mental Health Center in Middletown.

"He did a lot in a quiet way," said J. Clement "Bud" Cicilline, a longtime friend of Gaines, a former state senator and a former executive director of the Mental Health Center.

"He was my first friend in 1968 when I moved to Newport," Cicilline said.

They were neighbors and their children grew up together, he said.

"He was a wonderful person," Cicilline said. "He always wanted to do the right thing. There was no funny business. He was full of integrity and a continuing influence in the community and city government."

People who later ran for City Council and served would call Gaines for advice, he said.

"He was a mentor for many people," Cicilline said. "It's a tremendous loss."

George Triplett grew up with Gaines in the old Kerry Hill neighborhood, when the Gaines' family lived on Johnson Court and Triplett's on Kingston Avenue.

"Our families were very close," said Triplett, who was five years younger than Gaines. "He was my idol, my role model. He was a great individual — we are all going to miss him so much."

Gaines was the youngest of the six children of Pauline (Jackson) Gaines and Albert P. Gaines.

He was an all-state basketball and baseball player at Rogers High School, where he graduated with the Class of 1951. That won him a full scholarship to Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, where he gained a whole new perspective on what it meant to be an African American in the United States.

On the train ride from Providence to New Orleans, he arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C., where he was told to get off the train. A baggage car with wooden benches was hooked up behind the engine and all the Black riders on the train were told to get in.

"That was the Jim Crow car," Gaines told The Newport Daily News in 2006. "We weren't allowed to be in the other cars or the dining car when we were riding through the South. It was a shock to me. In Newport, I had lots of white friends."

Four years of living in New Orleans, where there was separate seating for Blacks in the balconies of movie theaters, separate water fountains for Blacks throughout the city and separate restaurants, did not embitter Gaines, though, and he continued to achieve throughout his life.

After graduating from Xavier, he was in the military from 1955-57, serving in Mainz, Germany, as a radio operator in the Second Armored Division. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he operated a relay station in the Black Forest.

In 1959, he married Jo Eva Johnson, whom he met at Xavier. They now have three grown daughters, Jena, Patricia and Paula Jo, a son, Paul Jr., and two grandchildren, Zachary and Nicholas.

Upon returning to Newport, Gaines taught at Thompson and later at Rogers, where he was an assistant basketball coach and then head coach.

In 1968, the City Council appointed Gaines to fill an unexpired term on the Newport School Committee before Gaines went on win the spot in a municipal election.

Triplett said it was Gaines who got him involved in school matters and the School Committee. Triplett later served 16 years on the School Committee and the former Triplett Elementary School was named for him.

During the 1960s, Gaines earned a master's degree in administration and counseling at Bridgewater State College, which made him a job offer when he completed his studies.

For the next 28 years, he served as assistant to the president in charge of minority programs and affirmative action at the college.

"When I started at Bridgewater in 1968, there were only two Blacks in the college," Gaines told The Daily News in an earlier interview.

Today, the college has a diversified student body and the program he started at Bridgewater, called Progress, was copied statewide.

"Paul was just extraordinary," David Wilson, a former top administrator at Bridgewater, said on Friday. "He was a giant in the history of the university — admired and respected by generations of students, alumni, faculty and staff.

Upon his retirement in 1996, Adrian Tinsley, president of the university, said of Gaines: "As the first Black administrator at this college you were, first of all, a trailblazer who committed himself tirelessly to the goal of providing a Bridgewater education to every student who had the qualifications and the desire to earn a degree no matter what their race, color, ethnic origin, economic status or age."

His accomplishments at the college reveal "an extraordinary record," Tinsley said at the time, according to comments sent by Wilson on Friday.

"Your legacy at Bridgewater is that you have left the college profoundly different in its attitude and environment than when you came here in 1968," Tinsley said.

The Afro-American Alumni Society established the Paul L. Gaines Scholarship to benefit deserving Rhode Island and Massachusetts minority students majoring in education or counseling at Bridgewater State College.

"He was always a hard worker," said Jo Eva Gaines. "One of the highlights of his achievements, something he was very proud of, was his work in creating the Black Regiment memorial. It was a passion of his."

"The biggest reason for this memorial is that families will be able to bring their kids here to show them that these men were fighting for liberty when they did not have liberty themselves," Gaines told The Daily News. "It's significant that this was the only black regiment to fight in the Revolutionary War."

He spent 10 years on the project that created a 36-foot-long, 10-foot-high black granite memorial to the First Rhode Island Regiment, better known as the Black Regiment, which was inaugurated in 2006. The memorial is in Patriots Park, at the intersection of routes 24 and 114 in Portsmouth.

The saga began in 1996, when Gaines learned there was federal funding available through the state for highway enhancement projects. He was selected by the NAACP and other groups in the island community to lead the Patriots Park Enhancement Committee, but the committee became to a great degree a one-man show.

Gaines was chosen to coordinate the creation of the memorial, working with designer Derek Bradford, because of his past work in the community, and the contacts he had formed over the years. There had been earlier memorials at the site, beginning with just a natural stone.

Neighbors of Gaines in his youth, Alva and Victoria Burton, who he called "Uncle Bolly" and "Aunt Vic," began holding ceremonies at the site in Portsmouth, where the regiment had made a famous stand against attacking British soldiers and Hessians. Alva Burton was a former president the Newport County NAACP, of which Gaines was a Life Member.

"I got involved in this new project because of my respect for Uncle Bolly and Aunt Vic," Gaines said the time. "This memorial was the dream of those people in the 1960s. It started when they put that first rock down."

Gaines continued the legacy of those who went before him in many ways, and others will continue to follow the paths opened up by Gaines, Triplett said.

"He is a legend," he said.

Gaines' record of public service includes election to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention in 1985, a three-year term on the Advisory Council of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, of which he was a charter member; and the Newport Canvassing Authority, serving as chairman from 1997to 2006.

In addition, he sat on the Board of Trustees of St. Michael's Country Day School, the Newport Historical Society and the Newport Public Schools Equity in Education Committee. He also served on the Newport Public Library Board of Trustees; President's Advisory Board, U.S Naval War College in Newport; Co-Chair Advisory Board Community College of Rhode Island-Newport Campus; Newport Sports Advisory Commission; Newport Hospitality Commission and Newport Hospital Corporation.

Gaines was inducted into the Newport Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Rogers High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.

In 2005, he delivered the keynote address at the 58th Annual Reading of the George Washington Letter to the Congregation of Touro Synagogue. In 2006 he received the Living the Dream Award of the Martin Luther King Jr. State Holiday Commission.

sflynn@newportri.com

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