University of Missouri School of Law Honors First Black Applicant

University of Missouri School of Law Honors First Black Applicant

By Christina Asquith

      If Lloyd Gaines is alive, his law degree is waiting for him.

      The University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law has decided to award an honorary degree to Gaines 70 years after the university denied him admission because of his race. Sadly, few expect Gaines to show up at the May 13th graduation. He disappeared mysteriously in 1939 and hasn’t been seen since.

      A former high school valedictorian, Gaines was only 24 years old when he was last seen in Chicago in 1939. Months earlier, he had been the victorious plaintiff in the landmark civil rights case, Gaines v. Canada, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gaines’ right to equal protection under the law was violated when the University of Missouri School of Law rejected his application because he was Black.

      The Gaines victory was the first Supreme Court test of the “separate but equal” clause and helped open the door to the historic Brown v. Board of Education case 17 years later. But the personal victory for Gaines was short-lived. The court case drew national headlines, and the NAACP moved Gaines to Chicago after he received death threats. But before he could attend law school, he vanished.

      “We know that he would have been an outstanding attorney because he had the courage to fight this unjust decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Tim Heinsz, former Missouri law school dean, at a 1995 dedication ceremony in which a $100,000 scholarship for minority law students was announced in Gaines’ name. “Although ‘separate but equal’ remained the law, the decision that Lloyd Gaines won was one of the first successful assaults, which would lead to the eventual destruction of this noxious doctrine.”

      The University of Missouri School of Law did not graduate a Black attorney until the 1970s. As was practice at the time of Gaines’ lawsuit, the university offered to pay for Gaines to attend law school in a neighboring state — Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa or Illinois. At that time, no law school for Blacks existed in Missouri. Gaines refused and took his case to court. He lost twice, and appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-2 that the law school had to admit Gaines or provide a facility of equal stature for Blacks in Missouri.

      Awarding Gaines an honorary degree is the university’s effort to belatedly acknowledge the errors of its ways. Although little can make up for Gaines’ lost opportunity, there is always the possibility that on graduation day, a now 96-year-old Gaines may just show up to accept that diploma.

  • An extended version of this story appears in the May 4 issue of Diverse.



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