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1939 - Lloyd Gaines

Lloyd Gaines was moody that winter of 1939, acting not at all like a man who had just triumphed in one of the biggest Supreme Court cases in decades. And oddly, even though it was raining and the sidewalks of Chicago were clogged with slush, he felt a need to buy postage stamps one night.

Or so he told a friend just before he left his apartment house on March 19, 1939, never to be seen again. Had he not vanished at 28, Lloyd Gaines might be in the pantheon of civil rights history with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and other giants whose names will be invoked at the centennial convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which started this weekend in Manhattan.

Instead, Mr. Gaines has been consigned to one of history’s side rooms, his name recalled mainly by legal scholars and relatives, like Tracy Berry, an assistant United States attorney in St. Louis whose grandmother was Mr. Gaines’s sister.

“He was taken away and more than likely killed,” Ms. Berry said when asked to speculate on his fate. She said Mr. Gaines was known in family lore as “a caring, loving brother and son” who would not have chosen to disappear or commit suicide, despite the pressure he was under.

On Dec. 12, 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregated University of Missouri Law School had to admit Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was qualified except for the color of his skin, if there was no comparable legal education available to him within Missouri — and there was not.

Despite his victory, Mr. Gaines was troubled. He had told relatives and friends he was having trouble finding steady work to earn money for school (apparently one reason he went to Chicago), and he was ambivalent about being in the spotlight.

“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.”

Born in Mississippi to sharecropper parents in 1911, Lloyd Gaines was 14 when his widowed mother, Callie, took her seven children to St. Louis. Graduating first in his all-black high school class, Mr. Gaines won a $250 scholarship in an essay contest. He enrolled at a teachers’ college but dropped out for want of money. Then he won another modest scholarship, and with help from his brothers and black churches, he entered Lincoln University, a school for blacks in Jefferson City.

Mr. Gaines was president of his senior class, an honors graduate in history and a skilled debater. And he wanted to be a lawyer. There were only 36 black lawyers in Missouri in 1936, and all had been educated elsewhere, according to a 1951 article by Edward T. Clayton, an editor for Ebony whose account is probably the definitive one.

For the 1930s, Missouri’s policy was enlightened: since there was no law school at Lincoln, the state paid the tuitions of blacks from Missouri who went to nearby states to study law. And the Missouri legislature had committed itself to establishing a law school at Lincoln someday, should there ever be enough demand.

But Mr. Gaines said he wanted to go to the University of Missouri’s law school, so in 1936 he sued in state court to gain admission. He lost, but lawyers for the N.A.A.C.P. saw his case as a way to attack the “separate but equal” doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, which was used to justify public school segregation.

Mr. Gaines’s team was headed by Charles Hamilton Houston, chief litigator for the N.A.A.C.P., mentor to Thurgood Marshall and later dean of the Howard University Law School. The case reached the Supreme Court on Nov. 9, 1938. Houston argued that the state had blatantly failed to meet the “separate but equal” standard and that paying out-of-state tuition for black students from Missouri was not good enough. The court ruled 6 to 2 for Mr. Gaines. “The basic consideration here is not as to what sort of opportunities other states provide, or whether they are as good as those in Missouri, but as to what opportunities Missouri itself furnishes to white students and denies to Negroes solely upon the ground of color,” Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote.

Justices James C. McReynolds and Pierce Butler dissented, saying the State of Missouri ought to be able to set its own education policies. (There was one vacancy on the court.)

The ruling in Gaines v. Canada (S. W. Canada was the university registrar) would eventually open the doors of law schools for blacks in a dozen Southern and border states. And it was a steppingstone toward Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that repudiated the “separate but equal” notion in outlawing school segregation.

In 1939, the Missouri legislature tried to skirt the Gaines decision, setting up a supposedly equal, and ultimately short-lived, Lincoln University law school in an old beauty academy. It was only when the N.A.A.C.P. lawyers were preparing a challenge to this move that they realized Mr. Gaines had disappeared.

Mr. Gaines, who earned a master’s degree in economics at the University of Michigan while his case was winding through the courts, had behaved erratically before. In January 1939, he told a St. Louis gathering that he was eager to study law at Missouri — but his mother recalled things differently.

“I remember once I asked him if he was going to that school, and he said, ‘No,’ ” Callie Gaines told Ebony in 1951. “I told him then that I thought it would be too dangerous.” The family never filed a missing-person report, figuring he would turn up when he wanted to, his mother said.

Lloyd Gaines’s nephew George Gaines, a retired Navy captain who lives in San Diego, said recently, “We have never had him declared dead.” But Captain Gaines said he doubted that his uncle would have chosen to drop out of life, or end his life, given the perseverance he displayed.

In the early 1950s, the University of Missouri began admitting black students. Lloyd Gaines is now revered at the university, which awarded him an honorary law degree in 2006. That year, the state bar awarded him a law license, posthumously.


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