House proposal seeks move of historic African American’s collection to Smithsonian

Historic documents related to a key figure in African Americans’ struggle for equal opportunity in education should be elevated to a national stage, according to a state representative.

Lloyd Gaines (Gaines Family Archive, University of Missouri Law School)
Lloyd Gaines (Gaines Family Archive, University of Missouri Law School)

Representative Joshua Peters (D-St. Louis) is offering a resolution that would urge the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators to transfer the Lloyd Gaines collection to the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1936 Gaines applied for admission to the University of Missouri law school.  He was denied admission based on his race, and the state offered to pay the additional cost Gaines would incur to study law out of state, as was the state’s policy at the time.  Gaines declined and sued.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gaines’ favor, saying that the “separate but equal” doctrine of the time demanded that Gaines either be admitted to the University of Missouri or that the state create a separate school for African American students.

The state chose the latter course, and created the Lincoln University School of Law in St. Louis.

Peters says Gaines’ case led to the Brown vs. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas, which found the “separate but equal” practice of separating white and black students was inherently unequal, and unconstitutional.

“In Thurgood Marshall’s autobiography he wrote that if it was not for the Gaines vs. Canada case, he would not have been able to defend or to advocate for Brown vs. the Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas,” said Peters.  “It truly has a national impact.  It’s the premise that was used to really change America’s educational system.”

After the Lincoln University School of Law was established, the NAACP was preparing to file a lawsuit challenging its adequacy.  Around that time Gaines disappeared.  What happened to him remains unknown.

Gary Kremer, the Executive Director of the State Historical Society, said Gaines’ disappearance is a lingering mystery of the civil rights movement.

“It’s hard to imagine that more than seven decades later that he would have vanished without a trace unless there was some foul play,” said Kremer.

Representative Josh Peters (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Josh Peters (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Peters wants to see Gaines’ documents preserved and displayed at the national level.

“I think that anyone who knows about Mr. Gaines knows the impact that he had when it comes to law,” said Peters.

The Lloyd Gaines collection at the University of Missouri includes the letters Gaines wrote applying for admission, and the University’s responses denying his application due to his race.

Gaines has since been honored by the University, which named its Black Culture Center and a law scholarship for him and another African American student who was denied admission.  In 2006 he was granted an honorary law degree, followed by the Missouri Bar Association issuing him a posthumous law license.  Gaines’ portrait hangs in the University of Missouri law school building.

Peters’ resolution is HR 11.