When Lloyd Gaines left his home on the night of March 19, 1939, he told a friend he was going to buy postage stamps. That would be the last time his family and friends would set their eyes on him. He had months earlier won one of the biggest Supreme Court cases in decades. He had succeeded in a lawsuit to force the University of Missouri to accept him to its all-white law school.
But days before he went missing, his family said he looked worried. Gaines had told his family that apart from finding it difficult to get a stable job to earn money for his education, he was also not really comfortable with the public attention he was receiving thanks to the court case.
Born in 1911 to sharecropper parents, Gaines attended an all-Black high school where he graduated first in his class. He won a $250 scholarship in an essay contest and enrolled at a teachers’ college. He however dropped out of the college due to a lack of funds. Thankfully, he won another scholarship, and with assistance from family and black churches, he was able to attend Lincoln University, a school for Black people in Jefferson City, according to The New York Times.
Along the way, Gaines wanted to be a lawyer. But there were only 36 Black lawyers in Missouri at the time. And all the 36 Black lawyers were educated elsewhere, as stated by historians.
Still, after graduating from the historically Black Lincoln University in 1935, Gaines applied for admission to the segregated University of Missouri School of Law. It was the only law school in the state. In March 1936, the school told Gaines that his application had been rejected. The school offered to subsidize his tuition elsewhere, at a historically Black law school or a non-segregated law school in another state, a report by EJI said.
But Gaines, with the support of the NAACP, rejected the offer and dragged the University of Missouri to court to challenge its policy that restrained him from attending law school in his home state just because of the color of his skin. He lost the case in state courts and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won the case in December 1938. The University of Missouri was ordered to accept Gaines to its law school or create an in-state law school for African Americans.
The Missouri legislature immediately set up a separate law school for African Americans in an old beauty academy. But the NAACP argued that the move did not fall in with the decision of the court. The NAACP decided to file another legal challenge. But as it was preparing to do so, it got to know that Gaines was missing. A housekeeper at Gaines’ residence in Chicago told the NAACP that Gaines was last seen on March 19, 1939. And without a plaintiff, the desegregation lawsuit against the University of Missouri was dismissed.
It took another 10 years for the school to admit its first African-American student.
In March 1939 when Gaines went missing, state officials said he probably fled and assumed another identity following threats against him and the people he loved. But his family members believed he was kidnapped and murdered. “He was taken away and more than likely killed,” Tracy Berry, whose grandmother was Gaines’s sister, told The New York Times in 2009.
In 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agreed to investigate the case. Gaines’ fate is unknown to date. In 2006, the University of Missouri awarded him an honorary law degree. It was followed by a law license, posthumously, by the state bar.