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.

Apr 4, 2007 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

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."

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"When you think of those old photos of lynchings and burned bodies, who wouldn't want to think that he lived a full life in Mexico?" asks Berry. "But based on the love my grandmother and great-grandmother had for their brother and son, that's really hard for me to reconcile. If he wanted to walk away, there are easier ways to do it than to sever ties from the entire family."

To date the FBI remains reluctant to say when — or if — it will follow through on the NAACP's request to review Gaines' disappearance.

In response to a query from the Riverfront Times, FBI supervisory special agent Stephen Kodak tersely replied, "The FBI is aware of this referral by the NAACP, and the case will be evaluated based on its merits for potential solution along with the other civil-rights era cold case referrals made by our partners with the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the national Urban League. We currently have no other comment at this time on this matter."

Last year the Associated Press obtained FBI records that reveal the agency has twice denied requests to investigate the Gaines case. According to the AP, an internal memo dated May 10, 1940, and signed by FBI director Hoover states that agents "are conducting no investigation in connection with this matter."

Thirty years later — in May 1970 — Hoover denied a similar request from an undisclosed member of the public. "Although I would like to be of assistance in connection with your letter of May 7," wrote Hoover, "the case you mentioned involving Lloyd Gaines was not within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI."

Berry, who in her capacity as a U.S. attorney often works hand-in-hand with federal agents, hopes this time the FBI will heed the call to examine Gaines' disappearance.

"It would be good to finally end the speculating," says Berry. "It's certainly not going to erase what happened to our family, but by opening this case and others like it, we're admitting that there is still healing to be done. Then I definitely think it's a positive thing — no matter what they may find."