The Mystery of Lloyd Gaines

A St. Louis civil-rights pioneer vanished without a trace almost 70 years ago. Now, the NAACP wants the feds to find him.

As tragic as the event must have been to Gaines' mother and siblings, George Gaines confirms that the topic was rarely discussed at family gatherings.

"I was just a babe-in-arms when he disappeared, so I don't know if they talked about it at the time it happened," recalls George Gaines. "But when I was growing up, it was something that wasn't talked about much. When the conversation did come up, Lloyd was always held in high regard as a person who set a positive example and stood up for what was right."

It wasn't until he was in junior high and flipping through Ebony magazine that George Gaines learned the first in-depth details of his uncle's disappearance. Written by reporter Edward T. Clayton, the article published in May 1951 remains the most thorough investigation into Gaines' disappearance. Clayton traced Gaines' path from St. Louis to Kansas City and on to Chicago, where he hoped to find work in the late winter of 1939. The story told the tale of a man who'd grown weary of his role as a civil-rights trailblazer.

Gaines, second from left, was last seen while staying with Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers in Chicago.
Gaines, second from left, was last seen while staying with Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers in Chicago.
Though it's unknown whether Gaines is dead, last year the University of Missouri posthumously granted him a law degree, and the state bar association presented him with an honorary law license.
Though it's unknown whether Gaines is dead, last year the University of Missouri posthumously granted him a law degree, and the state bar association presented him with an honorary law license.

In Chicago, Clayton found Gaines' former neighbors from St. Louis, Nancy Page and her daughter Eddie Mae. For several weeks Gaines was a frequent dinner guest at their home. On March 19, 1939, he promised to repay the pair by taking them out to supper. Gaines never arrived for the scheduled meal.

Nancy Page told Clayton that Gaines appeared distressed and worried in the days leading up to his disappearance. "I never thought much about it at the time," recalled Page. "But Gaines did seem to be running away from something. Of course, I didn't dare try to pry into his affairs, but I remember once I did ask him if he was planning to go to University of Missouri, and I think he even hedged on this. His answer wasn't straightforward, and if I remember correctly, he said something like this: 'If I don't go, I will have at least made it possible for some other boy or girl to go.'"

Although Gaines told Page that he'd found a job at a nearby department store, Clayton discovered Gaines never reported for his first day of work. Meanwhile, fraternity brothers at the Alpha Phi Alpha house (where Gaines briefly stayed after checking out of a Chicago YMCA) provided Clayton with few additional insights into his disappearance.

The Ebony reporter noted that Gaines was short on money, and the brothers "took up a collection" for him just days before he vanished, leaving behind at the frat house a small duffel bag full of dirty socks, shirts and ties.

Back in St. Louis, Clayton visited with Gaines' mother, Callie, whom he found bedridden and living in the attic of the family's home on Belle Street. Callie claimed to have no knowledge of what became of her son but confirmed rumors of various sightings.

"Of course, we heard a lot of reports about where he was, but none of them meant anything," she told Clayton. "We heard once that he was in Mexico; another time somebody said he was in New York. But nobody knows any more than we do."

Like Nancy Page in Chicago, Lloyd's mother expressed doubt that her son planned to follow though in attending Mizzou. "We never talked much about the case," Callie said. "But I remember once I asked him if he was going to that school, and he said, 'No.' I told him then that I thought it would be too dangerous, but he didn't say anything else except that he wasn't going, and I knew he wasn't."

Her last contact with her son, she told Clayton, was a letter from Chicago in which she recalled him stating: "Goodbye. If you don't hear from me anymore you know I'll be all right."

Later, Clayton interviewed Gaines' older brother (and the namesake of his surviving descendant in California) George, who produced the cryptic, last letter Lloyd Gaines sent home. Dated March 3, 1939, the letter began: "Dear mother, I have come to Chicago hoping to find it possible to make my own way. I hope that by this letter I shall make very clear the reasons for such a step."

Gaines wrote that he left his job at a filling station in St. Louis after discovering the owner was selling inferior petrol as premium fuel. He then journeyed by train to Kansas City, where he spent a day delivering a speech before the city's chapter of the NAACP and taking a few hours to look for work. Finding no job prospects, he boarded a train to Chicago.

"As for my publicity relative to the university case," Gaines wrote his mother, "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: how historical and socially important the case but — and it ends.

"Off and out of the confines of the publicity columns, I am just a man — not one who has fought and sacrificed to make the case possible: one who is still fighting and sacrificing — almost the 'supreme sacrifice' to see that it is a complete and lasting success for thirteen million Negroes — no! — just another man. Sometimes I wish I were just a plain, ordinary man whose name no one recognized."

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