Black History: Special Delivery!!

Lloyd Gaines Dec 1938
Lloyd Gaines – December 1938

Lloyd Gaines (1911-?) is a little known civil rights pioneer. With the recent racial tensions being publicized at the University of Missouri, it seems only fitting to reflect on Gaines fight against discrimination. Born in Mississippi, his mother moved with him and his siblings to St. Louis when he was 14. Gaines excelled in his studies and received a scholarship to Lincoln University. After finishing at Lincoln University, Gaines applied to the University of Missouri Law School. He was denied admission due to his race. He sued in state court to gain admission but lost. His NAACP legal defense team hoped to challenge “separate but equal laws” that were in place at the time. Gaines NAACP legal defense team encouraged him to pursue the case further.

His case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court (Gaines v. Canada) and was heard in 1938. (Canada was the name of the university registrar). While the case matriculated through the court system, Gaines earned a masters degree from the University of Michigan. The court surprisingly ruled in his favor; declaring that the university would have to admit Gaines to the all white law school or create a law school for black students. It seemed that Gaines dream would come true and he would be able to attend law school at the University of Missouri as its first African American ever enrolled.

However, things would soon change for Gaines. On March 19, 1939, Gaines told a roommate that he was going out to buy stamps. He left home and was never seen or heard from again. The mystery of his disappearance remains unsolved to this day.   Many questions remain. Did he vanish to protect himself and his family? Could he have left the country? Committed suicide due to the pressure he was facing? Was he murdered? The case has never been thoroughly investigated. Gaines did share with relatives and close friends that he was having trouble finding steady work; which he needed to pay for school expenses. The publicity and notoriety of the case also seemed to be causing him some ambivalence as well. In a letter written to his mother a few days before his disappearance, Gaines wrote:

“As for my publicity relative to the university case, I have found that my race still likes to applaud, shake hands, pat me on the back and say how great and noble is the idea,” he wrote his mother in St. Louis days before disappearing. “How historical and socially important the case but — and there it ends.” He added, “Sometimes I wish I were just a plain, ordinary man whose name no one recognized.”

The University attempted to skirt the decision of the supreme court by setting up a black law school through Lincoln University. The school was to operate out of an old beauty parlor. This maneuver by the University prompted Gaines legal team to reach out to him address this new development. That is when it was discovered that he was missing. Gaines had demonstrated some odd behaviors throughout the supreme court case. So the legal team was unsure of what have happened. He had told some that he would be attending the University of Missouri; but told his mother that he would not be attending. His mother told him that she felt it was too dangerous and that he should not attend. The family never filed a missing persons report. His mother believed that he would resurface when he was ready. He never did. The family has never moved to have Gaines declared legally dead.

The University of Missouri would not begin admitting blacks again until the 1950’s. Gaines was awarded an honorary law degree in 2006 and also posthumously awarded a license to practice law.

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