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For Missing Civil Rights Hero, A Degree at Last

For Missing Civil Rights Hero, A Degree at Last
In a final salute, 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 68 years after the university denied him admission because of his race. It is sad, but few expect Gaines to show up at the May 13th graduation. He disappeared mysteriously in 1938 and hasn’t been seen since.

“What happened to him is one of the great unsolved mysteries,” says law school dean Lawrence Dessem. “It’s somewhat extraordinary to give this to an individual who we presume is no longer around.”

A former high school valedictorian, Gaines was only 24 years old when he was last seen in Chicago in 1938. 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. Today, in efforts to right past wrongs, the university renamed the Black culture center in Gaines’ name in 2000, and the law school offers a scholarship in his name to minority students. Granting Gaines an honorary degree would be the final salute.

“It’s the highest honor we have,” says Michael Middleton, who in 1985 was hired as the law school’s first Black professor. “He was an outstanding student dedicated to public service and a man of great integrity. The Lloyd Gaines story has inspired me since I first learned of it as a student.”

A Pioneer for Equality in Education
The Gaines case came amid a surge in litigation in the 1930s on behalf of Black education rights in the South. Fueled largely by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall attacked legally sanctioned segregation by teaming up with ambitious Black students who’d been denied entry into graduate schools. While working on the Gaines case, Houston and Marshall were also arguing on behalf of University of Maryland law school applicant Donald Gaines Murray, who was also denied entry because of his race, and Lucile H. Bluford, who was seeking admission to the University of Missouri’s school of journalism. In Murray’s case, the Supreme Court agreed, and in 1938, Murray became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law. However, Bluford’s case was denied.

At the time, many graduate and law schools in the South were avoiding integration by paying the tuition of Black students to attend out-of-state schools. This, they argued, complied with the Supreme Court’s requirement that an education be provided to Black students in a ‘separate but equal’ setting. The crux of Houston and Marshall’s argument was that separate Black schools were never equal and that forcing students out of state for an education put an unfair burden on them.

Gaines was an honor student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., when his application was rejected by the University of Missouri’s board of curators, the same body that has just decided to grant him an honorary degree. During the trial, defense attorneys accused Gaines of prearranging the lawsuit with the NAACP, and applying with the intention of using his rejection to file a lawsuit. They also asserted that a separate law school for Blacks would “benefit” Gaines because he would have a smaller class size.

“Lloyd Gaines, Colored, has applied for admission to the School of Law. The People of Missouri have forbidden the attendance … of a colored person at the University of Missouri … Any change in the state system of separate instruction would react to the detriment of both Lincoln University and the University of Missouri,” reads the transcript of the court proceedings. Douglas O. Linder, professor of law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has studied the trial transcripts as well as Charles Houston’s letters in the Library of Congress, and has written extensively about the case.

Linder says the fight against Gaines extended all the way up to the president of the university and the Missouri State Attorney General, who both testified against Gaines.

“There was a lot of resentment towards Gaines at the time for dragging the state through this litigation,” Linder says.

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.

In the press, Houston heralded the victory as opening up opportunities for Blacks in the 16 states that forbade them from professional schools. He hoped that this would end the practice of forcing Blacks out of state for an education. 

But the joy faded in 1939 with the introduction of a new bill in the Missouri state Legislature. The bill authorized Lincoln University to build an entirely new law school for Blacks, rather than allow Gaines into Missouri’s program. Despite widespread protest by Blacks, the bill passed by a large majority and was signed by Gov. Lloyd Crow Stark.

Lincoln acquired an old brownstone building, invested in some library books and professors, and named it the Lincoln University College of Law. It opened in 1939 with 30 Black students, but Gaines was not among them.

Houston and his team regrouped to fight this latest move in a second case that could have overturned the “separate but equal” condition almost two decades before Brown v. Board of Education. The crux of Houston’s argument was that Lincoln University’s law school was vastly inferior to the University of Missouri. But when the judge called Lloyd Gaines to be deposed, the courtroom was silent. Gaines could not be located. Despite a nationwide campaign by the NAACP to find him, Gaines was never heard from again. Without a plaintiff, the case was dismissed.

Speculation About Gaines’ Fate
Gaines had last been living with fraternity brothers at the Alpha Phi Alpha house on Chicago’s South Side. A friend said Gaines told her he might not go to law school, even if he was admitted. “If I don’t go, I will have at least made it possible for some other boy or girl to go,” he reportedly said. According to Linder, Gaines sent his mother a postcard that read: ‘Goodbye. If you don’t hear from me any more, it’s alright.’”
On a rainy night in mid March, he left the Alpha Phi Alpha house, mentioning something about “buying some stamps.” That was the last anyone saw or heard of him.

Speculation still swirls around what happened to Gaines. Many believe that the decision to build a separate law school had been the final disappointment for Gaines. He had been waiting three years for an education, enduring intense public scrutiny and hostility as the trial dragged on. During that time, he had been holding odd, low-wage jobs to make ends meet. Some say Gaines was a loner by nature and lost his will to go to law school during the court battle. Others say he became depressed and fearful. He was unmarried and had no children.

There has also been speculation that Gaines was abducted and murdered by segregationists. Years earlier, a mob that included some University of Missouri students lynched a Black man named James Scott. Perhaps Gaines was threatened with violence and went into hiding. Some claim he was successfully bribed to “go away.”

Linder believes Gaines committed suicide. In the 1940s, Gaines’ family issued statements that they believed he was still alive. Today, he has no known surviving relatives who personally knew him. His nephew, George Gaines, will accept the honorary degree on his behalf.

Regardless of Gaines’ fate, his legacy is clear. Today, Missouri’s law school enrolls about 24 Black students, approximately 5 percent of its overall enrollment. It’s a number that dean of admissions Donna Pavlick says she “would like to be higher.” 

Awarding Gaines an honorary degree is the university’s effort to belatedly acknowledge the error 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.

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