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On a cool, rainy night in March 1939, a handsome, rail-thin graduate student named Lloyd Gaines threw on an overcoat and journeyed into the streets of south Chicago. On his way out, he told the door attendant that he was on a quick errand to buy some stamps. The 28-year-old Gaines was never seen or heard from again.
Just three months before he vanished, the St. Louis honors student won a pivotal United States Supreme Court decision mandating that the State of Missouri admit him into its university law school or build a separate and equal law school for blacks. The lawsuit, Gaines v. Canada, was filed against the University of Missouri's then-registrar, S.W. Canada.
The case helped forge the legal framework for the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregation in public schools.
Friends and relatives recall Gaines as a quiet, headstrong man whose family migrated north from Mississippi in the late 1920s. As a young college student, Gaines walked the neighborhoods of north St. Louis selling magazines to help pay for his education. When his youngest sister finished eighth grade, he scraped together his meager savings to buy her a dress for graduation.
Something of a loner, Gaines was known to stay away from home for nights on end and journey off-campus without telling a soul. Discussing the disappearance years later, one of Lloyd's older brothers told a reporter, "He always kept kind to himself, so we figured he knew what he was doing and whatever he did was his own business."
Days would pass before anyone realized Gaines was missing. It would take another seven months before his disappearance became public. Newspapers across the country carried his photo. Anyone with information into his whereabouts was urged to contact the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. None of those efforts produced any solid leads.
In the weeks and months that followed, rumors circulated that Gaines had fallen into the hands of segregationist marauders his body disposed of, never to be found. Rumors later placed him in New York, where he's said to have worked as a schoolteacher. Still more reported sightings placed Gaines in Mexico City, where he supposedly fled after taking a lucrative bribe to drop his suit.
Sixty-eight years later, Gaines' whereabouts remains a mystery. For generations Lloyd Gaines was rarely mentioned among his descendants growing up in the family's rambling, three-story home just north of the Central West End.
Likewise, it's only been in recent decades that the University of Missouri has acknowledged its role in Gaines' historic struggle. In 1995 the school established a law scholarship in his honor and later named its Black Culture Center after Gaines and another black student denied admission to the university because of her race.
Should Gaines miraculously reappear today, he'd be 96 years old and free to practice law in Missouri. Last year the University of Missouri School of Law presented him with an honorary degree, and the state bar association granted him a posthumous law license.
Oddly, authorities never looked into Gaines' disappearance, and it's unclear whether his family ever went to police in St. Louis or Chicago to report him missing. "At the time they probably didn't think it would do any good," rationalizes Gaines' great-niece, St. Louis resident Tracy Berry. "You figure this is a family who migrated from the South where the Ku Klux Klan still dominated the scenery. They weren't likely to rock the boat."
For that matter, the family has never declared Lloyd Gaines legally dead. But that may all soon change.
Last month the NAACP called upon the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate for the first time what became of Gaines. The prospect of a federal examination is once again sparking public interest in Lloyd Gaines, as well as ripping open wounds that have yet to heal among his surviving descendants.
"To my grandmother and Lloyd's other siblings, the story of Lloyd Gaines was significant because their brother disappeared, not because he won a Supreme Court decision," reflects Berry, who in 1991 realized her great-uncle's dream when she received a law degree from Washington University. "The general public looks at his life as this historical tale. For us it's a family tragedy that's yet to be answered."
What if anything authorities will discover in their investigation remains to be seen. Of the more than 100 civil-rights-era "cold cases" the NAACP has asked the Justice Department to investigate in recent years, Gaines' disappearance presents one of the toughest challenges. Few people with any firsthand knowledge of the case are still alive, and no corpse or remains have ever been found.
"I welcome the FBI investigation, because in my mind it's certainly not a done deal," says Lloyd Gaines' 69-year-old nephew, George Gaines. "But given the time frame involved, I don't know if they're going to find anything conclusive. It's been a long time."
A retired Navy captain living in San Diego, George Gaines is one of only two family members remaining who were alive at the time of Lloyd Gaines' disappearance. The other family member declined to talk about the subject for this story.