Columbia, Mo. Civil rights pioneer Lloyd L. Gaines has finally earned a law degree from the University of Missouri, 67 years after he mysteriously disappeared while the courts fought over his effort to integrate the campus.
Hundreds of honors graduates and their families who gathered on the Francis Quadrangle on Saturday morning gave a standing ovation to George Gaines, a retired U.S Navy officer who accepted the honorary degree awarded posthumously to his uncle.
Denied admission in 1935 solely because of the color of his skin, Lloyd Gaines filed a legal challenge that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled three years later that the state must either admit Gaines or establish a separate law school for blacks.
But the St. Louis native, an honors graduate of historically black Lincoln University in Jefferson City, never made it to law school.
Four years after he failed to gain admission to Missouri, Gaines - who by then had already earned a master's degree in economics from Michigan while struggling to earn a living and handle his notoriety - disappeared from a Chicago boarding house, his fate unknown.
"It's really important that we're seeing his name, not just hidden in some small reference book, to know that his sacrifice is appreciated by more than just a few members of our family and the African American community," said Tracy Berry, a federal prosecutor in St. Louis whose grandmother was Lloyd Gaines' youngest sister.
One of Gaines' attorneys from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a young Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to argue the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case in 1954 before spending 24 years as a Supreme Court justice.
For decades, the fate of Gaines has been the subject of much speculation among historians, family members and journalists, with theories ranging from a violent ending at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan to a self-imposed exile in Mexico.
Before the Supreme Court decision, any black in Missouri who wanted to attend law school or other professional schools at the graduate level was sent to neighboring states that accepted minorities, at Missouri's expense.