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December 21, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST
One simple quiz might make you question the length of the university’s institutional memory. Pencil ready?
1. In the 1930s, university officials began a 14-year legal battle and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to keep out black students. True/False?
Past and present conversations surrounding the Lloyd Gaines case are imperative to understanding the sentiment of America in the late1930s and how the civil rights figure is remembered today.
2. Black students have been at MU for fewer than 60 years. True/False?
3. This year, MU received an “F” in accessibility for minority and low-income students by the Education Trust. True/False?
4. Who is Lloyd Lionel Gaines?
The first three are true, true and true. Acceptable answers for question four are: an honors student who applied to get into MU’s School of Law and was denied because he was black, the plaintiff in one of the most important Supreme Court segregation cases, a civil rights figure whose disappearance remains a mystery. Half-credit for “the black culture center guy” or “some civil rights man.”
If you failed miserably, you’re not the only one. Lloyd Gaines is a prominent figure from a bleaker part of MU’s history — a part often omitted from history lessons and campus tours. Gaines overcame poverty and obtained a solid education but would never overcome the racism that kept him from his law school dream. Ultimately, the strain of being a civil rights figurehead while trying to lead a fulfilling life became too great a burden and seems to have contributed to his untimely and mysterious disappearance.
Lloyd Lionel Gaines was born in 1911 to a Mississippi family with 11 children. He began his education in an insufficiently heated one-room school for black students. His father, who made a comfortable living as a farmer, died when Gaines was 4. Gaines was a strong student who graduated at the top of his high school class in St. Louis. As an honors student on scholarship at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, he graduated in three and a half years with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Gaines’ civil rights struggle began shortly after he graduated from Lincoln in 1935. The honor student aspired to become a lawyer, and MU was his top choice. At the time, only whites were admitted to the university, and there was no in-state public law school for black students. Gaines applied anyway.
“We have to understand that the school was not established to admit women or minorities,” says Nathan Stephens, director of the black culture center. During segregation, black students seeking a graduate degree had to leave the state. Unlike most schools in segregated states, though, MU would pay for part of a black student’s out-of-state graduate school tuition.
But leaving Missouri was unappealing to Gaines. In 1935, he applied to MU and received interest from admissions. It is safe to say that the university registrar, S.W. Canada, knew neither the color of Gaines’ skin nor the historically black university he had attended.
Meanwhile, NAACP lawyers and civil rights pioneers Sidney Redmond and Charles Houston were battling segregation and unequal teachers’ salaries in Missouri. Hoping to challenge segregation at MU, they were looking for a black student as a plaintiff.
The university learned of Gaines’ color after receiving his Lincoln transcript and denied him admission. Soon after, Gaines met the NAACP lawyers who sought him out and would lay the foundation of the coming court case. It was the first NAACP test case regarding educational segregation to reach the Supreme Court.
A civil rights figure emerges
The Board of Curators rejected Gaines’ application and those of three other black students. Gaines was probably disappointed though not shocked. Quickly, the NAACP petitioned the Boone County Circuit Court in July 1936 to force the university to admit Gaines. During the trial, one of Gaines’ lawyers attacked traditionalist mentality and asked, “You don’t think tradition can bind progress forever, do you?” F.M. McDavid, senator and president of the Board of Curators replied, “I don’t know what you mean by progress.” The court ruled in favor of the university, and the NAACP immediately filed an appeal.
In December 1937, the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court, and again the court handed down a pro-segregation decision by maintaining that Gaines was not deprived of his rights under the 14th Amendment because Missouri paid black students’ nonresident tuition.
Neither Gaines nor the NAACP was satisfied. By that time, the case had grown bigger than Gaines. Although he was the poster child for an antidiscrimination case — an honors student with an exemplary record — he was also an instrument in the civil rights attempt to eradicate segregation. But as the case slowly pushed its way through the court system, Gaines moved on and attended the University of Michigan to pursue a master’s degree in economics. Under pressure and aware that he would be judged by both his supporters and opponents, he again excelled at school.
In 1938, his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Around the country, people on both sides of the segregation debate anticipated the court’s reaction. Justice Hugo Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, sat on the court. On Gaines’ side were his original lawyers, now with the help of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. On December 12, 1938, the Supreme Court rendered a 5-2 decision that was both a victory and a loss for Gaines. The verdict stated that Missouri must admit Gaines or provide an equal law school facility for black students within the state. Black, who would later become one of the Court’s most liberal judges, voted with the majority.
Newspapers across the country exploded in headlines about the case, many of them supporting the verdict and some saying the ruling did not go far enough. The case did not end segregation but merely allowed for a new interpretation of “separate but equal” as rendered in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
Gaines, who was in Michigan when the verdict was rendered, offered a few poignant words in response: “Organized pressure has opened another great gate for our people…may we all see that this golden opportunity is never neglected, lost or forgotten.”
But perhaps the opportunity was more gilded than truly golden. Publicly, Gaines stated he would enroll at Missouri’s law school but told his mother privately that he was not planning to attend. Clearly, the years of legal battles and the pressures of being a civil rights figurehead had taken their toll on the courtroom-wary man.
In compliance with the Supreme Court, a law school for black students was established in St. Louis through Lincoln University. In 1939, a group of 20 students arrived to take classes at the new law school. The school, however, was short-lived and shut down in 1943.
It was not until 1950 that Gus T. Ridgel, a fellow Lincoln graduate, became the first black student to attend MU.
Gaines graduated with his master’s and moved back to Missouri. But two degrees, loads of publicity and a Supreme Court case did not equal a fulfilled life. Gaines worked for the Michigan State Civil Service as a WPA clerk and later pumped gas at a service station upon returning to St. Louis. He received an education, but it was not the education he had hoped for. When exactly Gaines gave up on law school is unknown, but it was likely a sad and bitter decision. Gaines quit his job at the gas station, his last job, after discovering his boss deceived customers by selling lower grades of fuel as higher grades.
In early 1939, he traveled to Kansas City, where he spoke at an NAACP meeting and urged the crowd of more than 1,000 to join the organization.
At 28, Gaines was a public figure but was still without a solid job or law degree. He moved to Chicago in hopes of finding employment and stayed with brothers in his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. In his last known letter to his mother, written in early March 1939, Gaines concluded with, “Should I forget to write for a time don’t worry about it, I can look after myself OK.” A week or so later, his mother received a final postcard which said, “Goodbye. If you don’t hear from me anymore, you know I’ll be all right.” Gaines was never heard from again.
Rumors ranged from a self-imposed exile in Mexico, to teaching in New York, to being murdered by the Klan. Two students claimed Gaines sent them postcards from Mexico but could never produce them. According to the Associated Press, an internal FBI memo pertaining to the case from 1940 stated that the agency was “conducting no investigation in connection with this matter.” Thirty years later, another memo said that the case “was not within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI.” In 1951, one of Gaines’ sisters was quoted as saying the family still thought he was alive though they hadn’t heard from him. He has a surviving nephew and great-nieces, but they did not personally know him. If Gaines were alive today, he would be 95.
The public will probably never know exactly what happened, but his letters seem to make clear that he knew he would be leaving. Based on his personal letters, one might get the impression that Gaines could have been depressed, disillusioned, tired or bitter as the silver lining of his case was not enough to give him happiness or a steady job. Ultimately, he became a victim of the very system that he so long fought against. Despite his mysterious disappearance, Gaines left a legacy. The Supreme Court case, Gaines v. Canada, furthered the path toward desegregation in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Both Gaines and the case raised public awareness and inspired others to continue the battle against discrimination.
MU Deputy Chancellor Mike Middleton knew the story of Lloyd Gaines before he applied to MU’s law school in 1968. Nearly 40 years after he became the third black to attend MU’s law school, Middleton says the university honors Gaines by memorializing his civil rights efforts. “We recognize his contributions every day in our effort to make sure what happens to Gaines never happens to another student,” he says.
MU Alpha Phi Alpha student Andom Gherezghiher says Gaines’ story is well-told within the fraternity. Gaines, Houston, Marshall and Redmond belonged to this same organization. Gherezghiher says part of the way the fraternity brothers honor the legacy of Gaines and other deceased Alphas is by doing community service.
Although he believes Gaines’ story is known among blacks, Gherezghiher says he thinks it isn’t as well-circulated on campus as it should be. “It’s part of the darker time of Mizzou’s history,” he says. Compared to other people in the university’s history, he says, Gaines’ life is far less told. “It’s not like they coin Gaines like they do Faurot,” he says, referring to the popular football coach of the same era. Gherezghiher’s voice quickens with emotion as he says, “Gaines is so under-appreciated; it’s a crime.”
But honoring Gaines and acknowledging university mistakes can be separate matters. Middleton says efforts to honor Gaines are positive and that it is up to the public to determine how well-told Gaines’ story is. But the administrative legacy from Gaines’ era reminds him of how university officials should and shouldn’t act. As for the university’s 14-year battle to keep out black students, Middleton says, “I think many people in the university would rather not talk about it because it’s an embarrassing part of the university’s history. But the administrators I’ve talked with certainly acknowledge it.”
Although now dedicated to preserving Gaines’ legacy, Gherezghiher hadn’t heard Gaines’ story until he was the political committee chairman of the Legion of Black Collegiates. No history book or political science class he remembers has ever mentioned Gaines. “It wasn’t taught to me,” he says. “I had to learn it for myself.” He sees this as an unacceptable omission in the university’s history.
In recent years, the university has made symbolic gestures in Gaines’ honor. In 2001, the black culture center was renamed the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center in honor of Gaines and Dr. Marian Oldham. Years after her application was denied, in 1977 Oldham became the first black female curator to serve the university. This marked the first building on campus named after blacks.
Nathan Stephens, director of the center, supports the renaming. “To me, to have the center named after him is a reward and a sign that the university is headed in the right direction in regards to ethnic minorities,” he says.
A large statue of Gaines now resides in the law school, and in May of this year the school granted Gaines an honorary law degree. Two of his great-nieces accepted the degree on his behalf. According to Gherezghiher, the Alphas were ecstatic when the honorary degree was awarded. “I was happy that the university finally recognized the deeds Gaines had done,” he says. Two law school scholarships have also been established in his honor.
When Gaines dreamed of being a lawyer as a high school student, it seems he never intended to be a symbol for the civil rights movement. He merely wanted to attend law school, but because of segregation he had to fight a long and ultimately tragic battle. In his NAACP speech in Kansas City, Gaines summed up his experience: “I didn’t start the noise. The University officials started it. If they had admitted me, no one would have known about it. There would have been no world-wide publicity attached to my name.”