Galveston churches discover pioneering Black priest’s unmarked grave

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Feb 24, 2023

The unmarked grave of the Rev. Thomas Cain soon will have a marker provided by Galveston’s three Episcopal churches. Cain was priest-in-charge of St. Augustine’s from 1888 until his death in 1900. Photo: Courtesy of Jimmy Abbott

[Episcopal News Service] For decades members of the three Episcopal churches in Galveston, Texas – Trinity, Grace and St. Augustine of Hippo – have wondered about the location of the Rev. Thomas White Cain’s grave. Cain, who is recalled as much for his life and ministry as for his death, was priest-in-charge of St. Augustine’s when he died on Sept. 8, 1900, in the Great Galveston Flood. Earlier this month, they found it.

The hurricane killed at least 6,000 people and destroyed or damaged almost every structure in town. After the waters receded, Cain’s body was found on the beach and hastily buried. Later that year his remains were moved to Galveston’s Lakeview Cemetery, where then-Texas Bishop George Kinsolving officiated at the burial. His wife Elizabeth’s remains were never found. But the location of Cain’s grave was lost to memory over the decades, and a headstone, like others from that era, was likely destroyed or crumbled over time.

The Rev. Thomas Cain, who died in the Galveston Flood of 1900, went from enslavement to being the first Black priest to serve as a deputy to General Convention. Photo: Archival

In mid-February, a combination of longtime close ties between the three churches and a bit of luck turned up Cain’s final resting place, the Rev. Jimmy Abbott, Trinity’s rector, told Episcopal News Service. The three churches raised enough money in one day through a social media campaign to pay for a stone grave marker, which St. Augustine’s is designing.

All three churches are located within a mile of each other, and while they have different histories and cultures, they have always worked together. “There was a line from an old Galveston civic leader who said that people who may die together learn to live together,” Abbott said.

It all began with Trinity. Grace’s rector, the Rev. Jonathan Totty told ENS by email that his church was a mission started by Trinity in 1876, but when African-Caribbean sailors working at the Port of Galveston sought to attend church there on Sunday mornings, they were offered services on weekdays or Saturdays instead. Disillusioned, they bought an old church building and started St. Augustine’s in 1884. And when Grace’s current church building was dedicated in 1894, Cain was present.

The luck part of the story came when a Trinity vestry member, who owns an antique shop and who happens to be married to a vestry member at St. Augustine’s, discovered a document listing the grave plots in Lakeview Cemetery, including Cain’s. Working with the cemetery manager and cross-referencing names on the list with existing headstones, they were able to locate the unmarked grave.

As Cain’s story illustrates, Galveston played a role in both Episcopal and American Black history. Juneteenth – June 19, 1865 – marks the date when federal troops arrived in Galveston two months after the Civil War had ended and informed Texans that, through President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, slavery had ended and enslaved people in Texas were free. Juneteenth became a national holiday in 2021.

From enslavement to a seat at General Convention

While Cain’s death was tragic, his life was remarkable. Historical information from the Dioceses of Texas and North Carolina, along with accounts from noted Black historian the Rev. George Freeman Bragg – who was his first cousin – show Cain was born enslaved in 1843 in Warrenton, North Carolina, and by the end of the Civil War he and other members of his family had moved to Petersburg, Virginia, where they were connected to Grace Church, now Christ and Grace, where his father was a sexton.

Because it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read or write, Cain, now free, had his first exposure to education at age 22 at the Freedman’s Commission School started by St. Stephen’s Church in Petersburg. He excelled and went on to Lincoln University in Philadelphia.  After graduating he studied at the Philadelphia Divinity School, left school to teach for a few years, and then resumed studying for ordination at the Bishop Payne School in Petersburg, a branch of Virginia Theological School started specifically to prepare Black men for ordained ministry.

Undated parish photograph taken at St. Augustine of Hippo, Galveston, Texas. Photo: This Far By Faith publication, Episcopal Diocese of Texas

Cain was the first Black man in the state of Virginia to become a candidate for Holy Orders, less than 15 years after the end of the Civil War. He was ordained in 1879 by Virginia Bishop Francis Whittle and served St. Philip’s, Richmond, until being called in 1888 to St. Augustine of Hippo in Galveston, the oldest Black Episcopal church in Texas. The bishop who called him there, the Rt. Rev. Alexander Gregg owned slaves before the war. Cain became the first priest of color to serve in the Diocese of Texas.

When the diocese met for its Annual Council in May 1889, Cain was elected an alternate deputy to that year’s General Convention. He was seated as a deputy on the 10th day of the 23-day convention. He was reelected as an alternate in 1892 and again took his seat as a deputy midway through the proceedings. These elections made Cain the first Black priest to serve in the House of Deputies.

Cain also fought against a Jim Crow-era Texas law that required segregated train coaches. In 1893 he was traveling home from St. Louis when he was told he had to leave his Pullman sleeping car for a blacks-only coach. He later sued both the Pullman Company and the railroad. A local court awarded Cain $100 in damages.

A legacy that stretches from the 19th to the 21st century

After his death, Black Episcopalians across the United States donated money to construct a new building for All Saints’ Church in the Rev. Thomas Cain’s honor in his hometown of Warrenton, North Carolina. The cornerstone was laid in 1914, and the building was completed four years later. Photo: Courtesy of the Brooks Graebner

After Cain’s death, the Rev. John Pollard, his longtime friend and the archdeacon in North Carolina, wanted to honor Cain’s life and ministry by building a new church for the historically Black All Saints Parish in Cain’s hometown of Warrenton, and he set about raising money from Black Episcopalians across the country. North Carolina Bishop Joseph Cheshire laid a cornerstone memorializing Cain in 1914. All Saints’ Episcopal Church was completed and dedicated in 1918 by the suffragan bishop for colored work, the Rt. Rev. Henry Beard Delany.

A century later the building closed, though the Diocese of North Carolina is restoring All Saints, which also is known as Thomas Cain Memorial Church.

The Diocese of Texas honors Cain with The Rev. Thomas Cain Fund for Historic Black Churches. It provides annual grants for the mission, programming or maintenance of the historic Black churches in the diocese.

Note: The Archives of The Episcopal Church has information about the history of Black Episcopalians in its online section “The Church Awakens: African Americans and the Struggle for Justice.”

Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.