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Legacy of Missing Lloyd Gaines, 1938 Supreme Court Plaintiff, Still Haunts Higher Education

MU School of Law Library, Lloyd Gaines digital collection

No one knows what happened to Lloyd Lionel Gaines. He was last seen in Chicago on March 19, 1939.

Three months before he went missing, on Dec. 12, 1938, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a case against the University of Missouri School of Law. The court said the school violated the constitution when it rejected Gaines' application because he was black.

Wednesday marks the 80th anniversary of the ruling. 

Experts say his case could have done what Brown v.  Board of Education did in 1954, and it would have been done 15 years earlier.

But Gaines disappeared before it could happen.

Eighty years later, MU joins many other schools across the country in an ongoing struggle to confront the history of racism on their campuses.

Lloyd Gaines, the plaintiff

Lorenzo T. Greene has been hearing about the Gaines case since he was a kid. He has a few theories on what happened to Gaines.

"I could only surmise that he’d either been threatened with his life or given a substantial amount of money to disappear and never come back," Greene said.

Greene is the son of the late, noted historian and civil rights activist Lorenzo J. Greene. In the 1930s, Professor Greene taught history and debate at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, one of two historically black universities in Missouri.

Thirty miles north of Jefferson City, in Columbia, stands the University of Missouri, the state’s flagship institution of higher learning. In the 1930s it was home to Missouri’s only public law school, and the whole university was segregated. If a black student wanted to pursue a law degree, the state paid for them to go out of state.

The NAACP was on the lookout for a plaintiff who could challenge the law at the federal level, and Professor Greene was surveying the young minds in his classes for the perfect candidate.

“What he (my dad) sought to do was to find a student who was brilliant enough to break down this barrier that stood before them," Greene said.

Enter Lloyd Gaines. When he met Professor Greene in the early 1930s as an undergrad, Gaines was at the top of his class. Greene's son says his dad told the story like this:

“(Students) were discussing the University of Missouri and (Professor Greene) asked did they think it was fair that the university would not accept people of color? The all said no. He said, well what could you do?” 

So in 1935, the same year he graduated from Lincoln, Gaines applied to MU School of Law, which promptly rejected his application because of his race.

The NAACP had its case.

Gaines v. Canada

Gaines sued the university registrar, Silas W. Canada, first in circuit court. Denied.

He appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. Denied.

Litigation went on for years, and Gaines earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan while he waited for his case to move through the courts.

He was the blunt instrument that was going to deal the death blow to the wall,Greene said.

The day finally came. The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion on Dec. 12, 1938, ruling the rejection of Gaines’ application on the basis of his race a violation of his 14th amendment right to equal protection.

Suddenly, 27-year-old Lloyd Gaines was front-page news.

“He became this instant personality. No one had ever did something like that before. This was decades before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, in his quest for dismantling segregation," says Dwayne Smith, who has spent hundreds of hours researching the Gaines case. Smith also serves as the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.

Back in the 1930s it was known as Stowe Teachers’ College, which Gaines attended briefly before transferring to Lincoln.

Setting a sweeping precedent for graduate and professional schools across the nation, the Supreme Court said MU must either admit Gaines or provide an in-state law school of equal caliber for black students. Missouri quickly got to work on the second option and opened Lincoln University Law School in St. Louis in an old beauty shop. Smith says its resources were far from equal to MU’s.

“There was a sense of pride that there was a black law school," Smith said. "But it was mired in controversy because the understanding was that it was established to keep African-Americans, and namely Lloyd Gaines, out of Missouri’s law school school."

Gaines didn’t plan on attending. Instead, the NAACP was preparing to sue again, this time to get Gaines into the MU School of Law and dismantle segregated education once and for all.

But Gaines was getting tired of the spotlight. His fame had made it hard to find work.

In the winter of 1939, Gaines moved to Chicago to stay with a few fraternity brothers. He was looking for a job — trying to clear his head. Then one night he told the housekeeper he was going out for stamps.

No one ever saw him again.

Few people took notice until months later, when his lawyers couldn’t find him to prepare for the next court hearing.

With no plaintiff, the NAACP dropped the case.

Preserving Gaines' story

At the MU Law Library, fragments of Lloyd Gaines’ life live on through a series of letters he penned to his family during the last decade of his life.

“There were a lot of letters that reflected the challenge that the whole family experienced in trying to help support him as he was trying to make their dreams true," says Cynthia Bassett, a librarian at the law library.

Eleven years ago, Gaines’ family allowed the library to scan the letters and add them to a digital archive of material related to the case. Bassett says the collection illuminates the emotional and financial strain of civil rights activism.

“That was a key part to me of understanding, not just Lloyd, but his wider family and the challenge of a minority person trying to better themselves at that point in time," Bassett said. "It situates the case within that struggle.”

Fifteen years after Gaines disappeared, the segregation wall Gaines had almost torn down, finally crumbled. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued its opinion on Brown v. Board of Education and ruled segregated schools unconstitutional.

Integrating the University of Missouri

Integrating formerly all-white institutions like MU wasn’t easy, says one of its first black law students Michael Middleton.

Middleton went on to work as a civil rights attorney and law professor. He served as interim president of the University of Missouri’s four-campus system between 2015 and 2017 in the immediate aftermath of student-led anti-racism protests at the Columbia campus.

Standing in the lobby of the MU law school, looking at a small exhibit called “Gains after Gaines,” Middleton reflects on how the Gaines case molded his own education.

Like Gaines, Middleton grew up in Mississippi.

“The Lloyd Gaines story was motivational for me," he said. "I almost went to Ole Miss with a scholarship from the NAACP to integrate segregated law schools, but I convinced them that Mizzou was more segregated than Ole Miss at the time, so I stayed here.”

In 1969, Middleton joined other students in protesting the isolation of black students on campus, calling for, among other things, acknowledgement of MU’s racist history. Middleton says that’s still a problem today.

“I don’t know that any institution has been able to reconcile (the history) very well," he said. "People get comfortable and complacent and don’t understand the importance of dealing honestly with it until it explodes on them.”

Unaddressed history a factor in 2015 protests

“It” exploded in Columbia three years ago, during the fall of 2015. Fueled by repeated instances of racial slurs directed at black students met with limited responses from the university administration, a group of students calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, after the first year black students attended MU, staged a protest during the homecoming parade.

One of the protesters, Maxwell Little, says focusing on the long arc of racism, including Lloyd Gaines’ story, drove the protests’ messaging.

Little linked arms with a group of 10 other students, blocking then-UM System President Tim Wolfe’s car during the homecoming parade.

“The people who attended the homecoming parade needed to know the history of African-Americans’ contributions to the University of Missouri and the struggles African-Americans had to go through just to be seen as an important, significant member of the University of Missouri,” Little said.

In the weeks that followed, the national media swarmed Columbia. The protesters issued a list of demands, calling for a range of institutional changes, including more black faculty and Wolfe's resignation. Within one month, both Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned.

Another less talked-about demand called for the erection of a statue of Gaines on Carnahan Quadrangle in the middle of campus, right next to the law school Gaines never got to attend.

Little says Gaines’ story upholds MU’s values and should be celebrated.

“He knew what he was up against. He knew the challenges he would face. He persevered and won the supreme court decision. To me, that should be one of the things the University of Missouri honors,” he said.

There’s still no statue, but in the three years since the protests, MU has installed new leadership and publicized its commitment to diversity and inclusion. On the ground, though, MU is struggling to recruit and retain black students and faculty.

The legacy of Lloyd Gaines

MU’s challenges come in the middle of a larger national dialogue about the history of racism and higher education.

In 2018 alone, multiple anti-racism protests have erupted on campuses across the country including at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and at the University of Mississippi. 

Although Gaines’ legacy is still in the making, any leads on his whereabouts after March 19, 1939 are frozen solid. With no body, neither the FBI, nor the Department of Justice ever launched a formal investigation into Gaines’ disappearance, though numerous people and entities have either requested one or conducted their own investigations. Ebony Magazine ran down the list of possibilities in 1951; The St. Louis-based Riverfront Times did the same in 2007.

As recently as last summer a group of high school students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made a documentary about their quest to find out more about Gaines’ life, legacy and disappearance.

While there are still no answers 80 years later, for many, the case of Lloyd Gaines is too important to forget.

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