Lloyd Lionel Gaines (1911, Water Valley, Mississippi – disappeared March 19, 1939, Chicago) was the plaintiff in Gaines v. Canada (1938), one of the most important court cases of the 1930s in the U.S. civil rights movement. After being denied admission to the University of Missouri School of Law because he was black, and refusing the university’s offer to pay for him to attend a neighboring state’s law school that had no racial restriction, Gaines filed suit against the university. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor, holding that the separate but equal doctrine required that Missouri either admit him or set up a separate law school for Black students.
The Missouri General Assembly chose the latter option. It authorized conversion of a former cosmetology school in St. Louis to establish the Lincoln University School of Law, to which other, mostly black, students were admitted. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had supported Gaines’s suit, planned to file another suit challenging the adequacy of the new law school. While waiting for classes to begin, Gaines traveled between St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago looking for work. He performed odd jobs and gave speeches before local NAACP chapters. One night in Chicago he left the fraternity house, where he was staying, to buy stamps and never returned.
Gaines’ disappearance was not noted immediately, since he was frequently traveling independently in this period, without telling anyone his plans. Only in the autumn of that year, when the NAACP’s lawyers were unable to locate him to take depositions for a rehearing in state court, did a serious search begin. It failed, and the suit was dismissed. While most of his family believed at the time that he had been killed in retaliation for his legal victory, there has been speculation that Gaines had tired of his role in the civil rights movement and went elsewhere, either New York or Mexico City, to start a new life. In 2007 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agreed to look into the case, among many other missing persons cold cases related to the civil rights era.
Despite his unknown fate, Gaines has been honored by the University of Missouri School of Law and the state. The Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri and a law scholarship at the law school are named for him and another black student initially denied admission. In 2006 Gaines was posthumously granted an honorary law degree. The state bar association granted him a posthumous law license. A portrait of Gaines hangs in the University of Missouri law school building.