BCC commemorates Gaines' fight against segregation

Gaines was denied admission to MU's law school in 1936 because of his race.
Black Culture Center Director Nathan Stephens presents Wednesday at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Wednesday was the 72nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to allow Lloyd Gaines to attend MU.

When Lloyd Gaines applied to the MU School of Law in 1935, he was rejected, but not because he didn’t measure up to the program's academic standards. Valedictorian of his St. Louis high school and senior class president at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Gaines was denied admission after the university realized he was black.

About 74 years later, students at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center celebrated Gaines’s fight against segregation while recognizing his battle for racial acceptance is not yet finished.

“To most people, he symbolizes progress, not to be confused with completion,” BCC Director Nathan Stephens said. “I think several people on multiple campuses would say, ‘We’re so past that,’ when in reality, we’re not. We’ve made great gains, pun intended, great strides, but we still have work to do.”

The annual Lloyd Gaines commemoration recognizes the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dec. 12, 1938 ruling that required the state of Missouri to either admit Gaines to MU or start an equal law school for black students in the state. About 10 students came to Wednesday’s discussion at the center, where they gathered around refreshments and casually chatted. The center is named after Gaines and Marian O’Fallon Oldham, the first black female MU curator who was also denied admission because of her race.

Stephens gave a speech about Gaines, the progress MU has made since his case and the work that remains. He compared Gaines’s case to the later Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled in 1954 that separate public schools were “inherently unequal,” and therefore needed to be desegregated.

But unlike Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling in Gaines’s case gave Missouri the option of maintaining segregation. Rather than invite Gaines to study at MU, Missouri scrambled to establish a St. Louis law school at the historically black Lincoln University to comply with the Supreme Court decision.

Dwyane Smith from Harris-Stowe State University, who wrote his MU dissertation on Lloyd Gaines, said Gaines’s lawyers thought this new law school paled in comparison to MU’s. Smith spoke at the Lloyd Gaines Commemoration in 2008.

Smith said Gaines’s lawyers prepared to challenge segregation, and they argued, “How could you put together a law school in a couple of months and expect it to be equal to one that’s been established for decades?”

But before Gaines could attend either law school, he disappeared in 1939. In 2006, the MU School of Law awarded Gaines an honorary degree.

The first black student did not graduate from MU until 1951, when Gus T. Ridgel earned his master’s in economics, Stephens said.

“Your grandma or great-grandma could not have been a student at this campus,” junior Candace Williams said.

Stephens said events such as the Lloyd Gaines Commemoration are important because they jumpstart a dialogue about MU’s racial history and why it matters today. During his speech, he said he heard about a white male student who touched a black female student’s hair, leaving her feeling very offended.

“I’m sure this person meant no harm, but this incident occurred,” Stephens said. “And that is why we need to continue to be educated and learn from each other, so we can have a climate more conducive to (positive) interactions between students.”

Sophomore Portia King, who works at the center, said she appreciated the event creating a dialogue about MU’s racial history.

“If you don’t talk about it, it wouldn’t be within your conscious mind, so if you were doing something offensive, you wouldn’t know,” King said.

Stephens said MU needs to move from a politically correct attitude to cultural appreciation and inclusion. To get there, he suggested the university could create an online diversity assignment for incoming freshmen, so they can learn more about other cultures before they arrive on campus. He said he would also like to see students create a diversity organization to encourage dialogue between people of different backgrounds.

“It’s beyond being politically correct,” Stephens said. “It’s why I want to be respectful of people’s values, norms and experiences.”

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