Gaines v. Canada: A Monumental Civil Rights Victory

26, October 2017

Of the several groundbreaking civil rights cases to originate in St. Louis and reach the US Supreme Court, Gaines v. Canada ranks high. The 1938 decision struck a resounding blow to the heart of segregation in higher education. It also signaled the beginning of the end of legal segregation, which had been put in place by the High Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Pioneering NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall were determined to reverse the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which pronounced racial separation constitutional as long as public institutions were equal, and a young man named Lloyd Lionel Gaines, with the support of his NAACP-provided attorneys Sidney Redmond and Henry Espy, provided a promising test case for the nascent civil rights organization. 

A Model Student Takes on a University

Black-and-white yearbook photo of Lloyd GainesLloyd Gaines, 1931 valedictorian of Vashon High School. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Gaines was an ideal candidate to contest the University of Missouri’s policy of denying admission to African Americans. A 1931 honor graduate of St. Louis’s Vashon High School, he had completed his studies in three years and ranked number one in his graduating class. He had been the first vice-president of his senior class, president of the honor society, and associate editor of the school newspaper. Additionally, Gaines had been recognized by Vashon alumni as the outstanding graduate of the year and won a coveted $250 scholarship in an essay contest.

Gaines went on to graduate from both Stowe Teachers College and Lincoln University, where he continued to achieve high honors and served as president of his class. Determined to study law, he was persuaded to apply to the University of Missouri Law School in the summer of 1935, thus setting into motion the case credited with weakening legal barriers and eventually making it possible for African Americans to enter into mainstream American life.

The battle began when registrar Silas Woodson Canada was instructed by the board of curators to reject Gaines’s application because he was “colored.” According to Missouri law, it was unlawful for “any colored child to attend any white school, or for any white child to attend a colored school,” but there was no law explicitly prohibiting African Americans from admission to the University of Missouri (or any school of higher education). Rather, the practice was tradition and policy set forth by the university’s board of curators, although some members favored black admission as early as 1879.

Black-and-white photograph of Thurgood MarshallNAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall later became the first African American US Supreme Court justice. Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran, September 17, 1957. Library of Congress.

Typically, authorities didn’t admit race as a factor in justifying discrimination, resorting instead to evasions and maintaining that blacks were excluded due to reasons other than race. According to attorney Thurgood Marshall, the university had saved the NAACP “about $100,000 dollars” (money it didn’t have) by declaring Gaines was denied admission solely because of race—a fact university attorneys subsequently denied. Marshall argued that the university’s admission meant Gaines and his NAACP-backed legal team didn’t have to prove overt racial discrimination.

Decisions and Repercussions

Following losses at the state level, Gaines’s legal team took the young man’s grievances against the University of Missouri to the US Supreme Court. In a 6–2 decision, the Court ruled that the State of Missouri must either admit Gaines to the University of Missouri Law School or establish a separate and “substantially equal alternative.” In its blind adherence to segregation, the State chose the second option, despite the existence of serious doubts about whether a separate law school could be “substantially equal.” In September 1939 the Missouri legislature hastily appropriated “a pittance” of $200,000 and established Lincoln University School of Law in St. Louis’s Poro Building, the complex built by millionaire cosmetics entrepreneur Annie Malone in 1918.

Sepia-toned photograph of Poro CollegePoro College, ca. 1930. It was home to Lincoln University Law School starting in September 1939. Courtesy of The St. Louis American.

As for Lloyd Gaines, his position on attendance of the segregated school was unclear. The NAACP considered making an additional challenge on Gaines’s behalf, but he was nowhere to be found. Weary of the notoriety that accompanied one celebrated as a civil rights hero, Gaines, who was trying to earn money working in Chicago, left his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity house one rainy night in March 1939, stating that he was off to buy stamps, and simply disappeared. To this day, his whereabouts remain a mystery.  

Black-and-white photograph of Sidney RedmondSidney Redmond, 1952. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Although the Supreme Court decision was hailed as a victory in Gaines’s hometown, African Americans’ reaction to the separate law school was mixed. Some felt that a segregated law school was better than no law school at all, but detractors such as Judge Nathan B. Young, one of the founders of the St. Louis American newspaper, cried foul. Young, members of the Colored Clerks’ Circle (a local civil rights group), and other community leaders met the opening of the “Jim Crow” school with blistering editorials and picket lines some 200 souls strong.

Black St. Louisans pushed back vigorously in other ways as well. In 1940, Nathaniel Sweets, publisher of the St. Louis American, and attorney Sidney Redmond, both Republicans, effectively lobbied the Republican governor to not appoint Democrats to the University of Missouri’s board of curators who were sympathetic to segregation. Sweets and Redmond also successfully urged the appointment of the first black majority to Lincoln’s board of curators.

The Legacy of Lloyd Gaines

In 1950, University of Missouri attorney William Hogsett developed a plan with Redmond for three black students—Gus T. Ridgel, George Horne, and Elmer Bell Jr.—to file suit for admission to the university. The case was held in Cole County with Judge Samuel Blair. Known for his “ability and fairness,” he ruled that blacks could enter any public college in the state. Hence, the University of Missouri admitted its first African American students in 1950, a victory traced directly to the Gaines case.

Black-and-white photograph of Lloyd GainesLloyd Gaines disappeared in 1939, one year after this photo was taken. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Over the years, the University of Missouri attempted to make amends for its earlier transgressions.

  • In 1995 the school established a law scholarship in Gaines’s honor.
  • In 2006 the School of Law presented Gaines with an honorary degree, followed by the granting of a posthumous law license from the Missouri Bar Association.
  • In 2000 the Black Culture Center in Columbia was named after Gaines and Marian O’Fallon Oldham, the first female African American curator of the University of Missouri system.
  • In 2015 the group Concerned Students 1950 protested problematic racial issues on Mizzou’s campus, harkening back to the first black students to enter the university and paying homage to the young man who made it all possible, Lloyd Gaines.

Yet Gaines’s legacy goes far beyond the University of Missouri, the state, or even the city of St. Louis. His decision to defy the odds and challenge segregation inevitably led to the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that separate was inherently unequal. At long last, legal segregation had been laid to rest.

— Malaika Horne, member and past president of the Board of Curators, University of Missouri Systems

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the first curator from the University of Missouri–St. Louis to serve as president of the board of curators, Ms. Horne was instrumental in having Mizzou’s Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center approved and named.

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