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Little known Supreme Court case from Missouri was early stepping-stone to school desegregation

Lloyd Gaines never studied at the University of Missouri Law School. Still, his efforts to get in as a black student in the 1930s had a major impact on school segregation laws and African-American attorneys in Missouri.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down Dec. 12, 1938, said the law school either had to accept Gaines’ application or create an equal but separate option. It was not the outcome Gaines and the NAACP had hoped for, but the lawsuit put a crack in the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.

“It made a big dent, it made a lot of people turn their heads,” said Mark Schleer, archivist and historian at Lincoln University in Jefferson Ctiy.

By 1935 Gaines had completed studies at Missouri’s two colleges for African-Americans, Stowe Teachers College (today known as Harris-Stowe State University) in St. Louis and Lincoln University in Jefferson City. He then applied to the only law school in the state, the University of Missouri Law School in Columbia. 

At the time, Mizzou only accepted white students and would pay for black students to attend graduate schools in other states. Gaines’ application was denied. He sued, with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1938, the decision came down. Missouri lawmakers opted to create a law school for Lincoln University rather than allow African-Americans into the University of Missouri Law School.

The NAACP planned to press on with getting Gaines into Mizzou but shortly after the decision, he disappeared.

Gaines had gained notoriety for the case, which he blamed for his difficulty finding work. He mused to his family through letters that he wished he could go back to being anonymous. While staying at a fraternity house in Chicago, Gaines went out one evening to purchase stamps and was never seen or heard from again.

There are lots of theories, but little evidence for what happened to him.

“I don’t think it ended well for Lloyd, to be honest with you,” Schleer said.

Lloyd Gaines pictured at an unknown graduation. Gaines graduated from Vashon High School in St. Louis and earned a degree from Lincoln University after also studying at Stowe Teachers College
Credit University of Missouri Law School
Lloyd Gaines pictured at an unknown graduation. Gaines graduated from Vashon High School in St. Louis and earned a degree from Lincoln University after also studying at Stowe Teachers College

It would be another 12 years before Mizzou accepted a black student. Lincoln’s law school, which was set up in The Ville neighborhood in St. Louis, closed in 1955 because of low enrollment. Historians credit Gaines’ case for setting up the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that finally ended school segregation. 

“As far as education is concerned, the Lloyd Gaines case was the first stepping-stone from Plessy to Brown,” Schleer said.

Harold Holliday was the first African-American student to graduate from Mizzou Law in 1968. (Mizzou accepted its first black undergraduate student in 1950.)

Mizzou’s Black Cultural Center is co-named for Gaines and the law school has a scholarship in his honor. The college awarded Gaines an honorary degree in 2006.

“I don’t think he’s quite as well known on this campus or celebrated on this campus as he could be,” Schleer said. “Up here in the archives we’ve been working on that, trying to celebrate what he did and his — for lack of a better word, heroism.”

Eighty years later, women and minority representation at major law firms is in St. Louis is low, according to the National Association of Law Placement. Sixteen percent of associate attorneys in St. Louis are minorities and fewer than 5 percent are partners at law firms.

Nationally, representation is rising but is still below where it was before the Great Recession, according to NALP.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Danielle Carr, president of the Mound City Bar Association, one of the oldest bar associations for black attorneys in the West. “Fortunately, Gaines made the first step in the direction of helping African-American lawyers achieve their dream of becoming a lawyer.”

Carr, who is the director of diversity inclusion at Polsinelli Law Firm, added the access to law school and top firms is still not equal.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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