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.

News of the Supreme Court's decision blanketed newspapers across the country, and Gaines returned to St. Louis a hero and celebrity. Speaking before a packed house at the Pine Street YMCA in January 1939, Gaines told his supporters, "I am ready, willing and able to enroll in the law department at the University of Missouri in September, and I have the fullest intention of doing so."

But beyond the fanfare surrounding his court victory, little had changed in segregated St. Louis. Upon returning from Michigan, where he worked as a clerk in the Works Progress Administration, the only job Gaines could find was as a gas-station attendant. Soon he was borrowing money from his brother George and making speeches at churches and community centers for small donations.

It became clear that even after the Supreme Court ruling, Gaines' fight to enter the University of Missouri was far from over. In January 1939 Missouri legislators fast-tracked a bill to provide Lincoln University with $275,000 for the establishment of a black law school. In May of that year the bill was signed into law, and Lincoln University went about jury-rigging the now-demolished Poro Beauty College in north St. Louis into its 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.
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.

Details

The facility opened its doors September 21, 1939, under the condemnation of some 200 protesters who formed a picket line around the "Jim Crow" school. A total of 30 students showed up for classes that first day. Lloyd Gaines was not among them.

His NAACP attorneys planned to argue that the hastily thrown-together Lincoln Law School was not equal to the University of Missouri's program. In October his lawyers began taking depositions, only to realize that Gaines hadn't been heard from in months.

As attorney Sidney Redmond told Ebony magazine: "It wasn't necessary for Gaines to be present at all hearings after we filed his petition, but we were reasonably certain that he was going all the way with the suit. We had checked him pretty close as a student and knew his attitude about such matters. You can imagine how we felt when he failed to show up even after we won."

Today several of Gaines' descendants can't help but think that the NAACP took Lloyd Gaines for granted. If he was truly their star client, they wonder, how could they go so long without contacting him?

"Yeah, it appeared to me that they used him as something of a guinea pig," says Paulette Smith-Mosby, another of Gaines' great-nieces in St. Louis. "They used him pretty good."


So what did become of Lloyd Gaines? The answer to that depends on whom you ask.

Perhaps the most intriguing rumor comes from University City resident Sid Reedy, a 64-year-old librarian and member of the same Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity chapter to which Lloyd Gaines belonged. Reedy says he became fascinated by the story of Gaines in the late 1970s and ventured to Lincoln University to discuss the case with longtime instructor and civil-rights leader Lorenzo Greene.

It was Greene, who passed away in 1988, who first encouraged Gaines to apply to the University of Missouri law school. During his hour-long visit with the Lincoln professor, Reedy recalls, Greene told him of a trip he made to Mexico in the late 1940s. While there, Greene claimed, he reached Gaines by telephone. The two were later to meet at a Mexico City restaurant. Gaines never showed up.

"The minute he picked up the phone he said he recognized it was the voice of Lloyd Gaines," says Reedy. "They talked for awhile. Gaines said he had grown tired of the fight, and wanted to start over. He had some business in Mexico City and apparently did well financially."

Greene's son, Lorenzo Thomas Greene, confirms the story. A 54-year-old music teacher in Jefferson City, the younger Greene believes his father always held out hope that Gaines would return someday. Greene says his father's civil-rights activism prevented him from reporting his phone call with Gaines to authorities.

"Any information like that he'd have to take to the FBI," says Greene. "There wasn't a lot of trust there. FBI agents had already been to our house to question my mother about my father's involvement in other civil-rights matters. Of course, [former FBI director] J. Edgar Hoover wasn't an ally of the civil-rights movement. Even if my father went to them with that information, I really don't think they would have cared."

Today, Paulette Smith-Mosby prefers to accept this version of her great-uncle's disappearance. "I would like to think he died of old age in Mexico," says Smith-Mosby. "It's better than being buried in a basement somewhere — Jimmy Hoffa style."

Other members of the Gaines family aren't as optimistic. They can't help but believe that Gaines was a victim of foul play.

"Given the battle he fought, it would surprise me that he'd just up and disappear," says Gaines' nephew George. "It's hard for me to believe that he went to Mexico and accepted a big payoff. That's not the same man who presented himself during the trial. I don't believe he would compromise his integrity like that."

Tracy Berry also has a difficult time believing that her great-uncle pulled a vanishing act.

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