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.

He ended the rambling eight-page letter with news that he'd paid for his room in Chicago through March 7. "If nothing turns up by then, I'll have to make other arrangements. Should I forget to write for a time, don't worry about it. I can look after myself OK. As ever, Lloyd."

In addition to the letter, Gaines' brother George provided Clayton with insight into the financial straits that Lloyd endured. As the case dragged its way through the courts, the NAACP paid Gaines' basic expenses to attend business school at the University of Michigan, but it was George who loaned him spending money.

When Clayton interviewed George a dozen years after the disappearance, the older brother still had IOUs from Lloyd totaling $500. George Gaines also seemed to harbor resentment toward the NAACP.

Months after his Supreme Court victory against the University of Missouri, Lloyd Gaines disappeared — never to be seen again. A portrait of Gaines (pictured here) now hangs at the university's law school.
Months after his Supreme Court victory against the University of Missouri, Lloyd Gaines disappeared — never to be seen again. A portrait of Gaines (pictured here) now hangs at the university's law school.
A gifted scholar, Gaines graduated from Vashon High School in just three years. While waiting to attend law school, he earned a graduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan.
A gifted scholar, Gaines graduated from Vashon High School in just three years. While waiting to attend law school, he earned a graduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan.

"He was always writing here asking for money," George Gaines told Clayton. "That organization — the N-A-A-C-P or whatever it was — had him going around here making speeches, but when he got ready to go to Kansas City, I had to let him have $10 so he could get himself a white shirt."

Gaines' NAACP attorney, Sidney Redmond, further acknowledged to Clayton that his client may have felt as though they were being taken advantage of by the civil-rights organization.

"There was a feeling — not commonly discussed, of course — that Gaines seemed to feel that he wasn't getting enough out of being used as a guinea pig, and wanted more in a personal sort of way," said Redmond, who described Gaines' family as being reluctant to help the NAACP locate its client.

"The family doesn't seem too much concerned — and never was as I recall," continued Redmond. "I tried to press them for information at the time we first got word he disappeared, but even then they didn't seem too interested."


Lloyd Gaines' last surviving sibling, Dorothy Waters, died seven years ago at the age of 87. Following family tradition, relatives say Gaines' youngest sister seldom mentioned the mysterious disappearance of her brother — perhaps for good reason.

"I've heard that he had death threats against him," says Waters' granddaughter, Tracy Berry. "Considering the era in which this occurred, the people who made those threats probably made similar remarks to the family. That could account for family not talking about it."

Berry, who possesses the same high cheekbones and light brown skin as her great-uncle Lloyd, says her grandmother referred to her brother Lloyd as "dead" and provided few details about his life. It wasn't until Berry was in middle school that she unearthed the full story. Like her uncle George a generation before her, Berry came across details of the story by chance, in a news article.

Now an assistant U.S. attorney in St. Louis, Berry says people naturally assume that she was inspired to become a lawyer because of Lloyd Gaines — a premise that's not entirely false. "His legacy didn't so much make me want to go to law school," she says. "But I think he did instill the legacy of education in our family. It's expected that you go to college. He started the fight that made it all possible."

Even after growing up in the Gaines' household, Berry admits much of her knowledge of Gaines is purely academic. "The question everyone asks is: 'What happened?'" says Berry. "All I can say is that there are historians and reporters who know much more about it than I do."

Born in 1911 in the small Mississippi town of Water Valley, Lloyd Gaines accompanied his mother and siblings — accounts of the number of children in the family range from five to twelve — to St. Louis in 1926.

A few years later, in 1931, Gaines graduated at the top of his class from the old Vashon High School, requiring just three years to earn his high school diploma. He spent the next year studying at the city's black teachers' college, Stowe, before enrolling in Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

Gaines graduated from the state's black liberal arts school in 1935 as an honor student, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and president of his class. Upon receiving his diploma, he applied to the University of Missouri School of Law — at the time, the only public law school in the state.

School curators promptly rejected his application on the grounds that it was "contrary to the constitution, laws and public policy of the state to admit a Negro as a student in the University of Missouri." Instead, the state and university offered to pay Gaines' tuition to attend law school in the adjoining states of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois.

Gaines spurned the offer and, in January 1936, he and his NAACP attorneys filed a petition that he be granted enrollment at the University of Missouri law school. It would be nearly three years before Gaines' appeal landed before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Following the arguments of Gaines' NAACP attorneys, Charles Houston and Sidney Redmond, the court ruled 6-2 that Gaines must either be allowed entrance to the University of Missouri law school or the state build a separate law school for blacks.

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