soldier with rifle american civil warTHE SUPREME COURT WALL OF SHAME

Gaines V Missouri

The Supreme Court's
"Separate But Equal" Doctrine at Work

By: Joe Ryan

Lloyd L. Gaines, a resident of  Saint Louis, Missouri, graduated, in 1935, with honors from Lincoln University, a state-sponsored college designed for a student body composed strictly of African-Americans. Since Lincoln University did not have a law school, Gaines applied for admission at the law school operated by the University of Missouri at Colombia, in 1936. The law school's registrar denied Gaines admission solely on the ground that he was of African descent, it being the public policy of the State, codified in its constitution, that African-Americans not be admitted as a student to the University of Missouri. Gaines sued the University and State on the ground that the state's policy of paying out-of-state tuition in the case of Africans seeking graduate education did not equate equally with the benefits obtained by attending Missouri's state law school.

Tate Hall, the law school of the University of Missouri, in 1936

After an appeal from a trial court ruling against him, Gaines was informed by the Missouri Supreme Court that he was out of luck, Justice Frank for the Court writing this:

"It is clear that the Constitution provides for separate public school education for colored children and that this is not forbidden by the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution, and does not deprive the children of any rights. It follows, therefore, that the policy of the State is to segregate the white and negro races for the purposes of education in the common and high schools of the State. Gaines contends, however, that this policy does not require the separation of the races for the purpose of higher education.


In 1870, the Legislature passed laws which established Lincoln University at Jefferson City, for the purpose of training colored teachers. In 1887, the Legislature established an academic program at Lincoln University for the `higher education of the negro race.' All of this shows the Legislature's clear intent to separate the races for the purposes of higher education."


Citing cases, Justice Frank went on to say,

"It is said this is a classification based on color, and so it is; but the color carries with it natural race peculiarities which furnish the reason for the classification. There are differences in the races not created by human laws, some of which can never be eradicated. These differences create different social relations recognized by all well organized governments. If we cast aside chimerical theories and look to the practical results, it must be conceded that separate schools for colored children is a regulation to their great advantage."


Justice Frank then turned to the problem of how to provide Gaines with a law school education equal to that he would have obtained had he been admitted to the State law school. No problem, Frank responded; had Gaines applied to Lincoln University for the education, the University, by Missouri law, would be required to furnish Gaines with cost of tuition charged by law schools in neighboring states.

Gaines, supported by the NAACP, petitioned the United States Supreme Court for review of Justice Frank's decision.  Chief Justice Hughes delivered the opinion of the Court; reversing Frank's decision, the Supreme Court's majority held that Missouri had to either admit Gaines to the state law school at Columbia or build and staff a law school that gave him the same education the law school at Columbia provided white students.

"The State of Missouri has sought to fulfill the obligation of the State to provide negroes with advantages of higher education substantially equal to the advantages afforded to white students by furnishing equal facilities in separate schools, a method the validity of which has been sustained by our decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. But, the fact remains that instruction in law for negroes is not now afforded by the State at Lincoln University and, thus, the State excludes negroes from the advantages of the law school it has established at the University of Missouri.


It is manifest that this is discrimination. The basic issue is not as to what sort of opportunities other states provide, or whether they are as good as those in Missouri, but as to what opportunities Missouri itself furnishes to white students and denies to negroes solely upon the ground of color. The question here is Missouri's duty when it provides training to whites to provide the same training to blacks. Failing to provide equal opportunity within the State is a denial of the equality of legal right to the enjoyment of the privilege which the State has set up."


Though Gaines won his case in the United States Supreme Court, the decision was not unanimous. Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds, with Justice Pierce Butler concurring, had this to say in dissent:

"The judgment of the Missouri Supreme Court should be affirmed. That court well understood the grave difficulties of the situation and rightly refused to upset the settled legislative policy of the State.


For a long time Missouri has acted upon the view that the best interest of her people demands separation of whites and negroes in schools. Under the opinion just announced, I presume she may abandon her law school and thereby disadvantage her white citizens without improving her colored ones, or she may break down the settled practice concerning separate schools and thereby, as indicated by experience, damnify both races."


Justice McReynolds
Justice Butler


The 1938 United States Supreme Court

Rather than allow Lloyd Gaines admission to the law school at the University of Missouri, the State through Lincoln University purchased a building in downtown Saint Louis and set up in it the Lincoln University School of Law. Lloyd, though, did not attend the school. It appears that he left the United States, taking up a life long residence in Mexico where presumably he died. The Lincoln Law School operated until 1955, when the system of separate education in Missouri died with Brown v. Board of Education.

Lincoln University Law School

Since 2008, this portrait of Lloyd Gaines hangs at Tate Hall


Joe Ryan