By Sue Hagan
This is Black History month, so here’s a quiz for readers: of the nearly 2,000 men and women who have served as U.S. Senators, how many would you guess have been of Afro-American heritage? No matter where you are on the political spectrum, the answer might surprise you as it did me. I’ll give the correct answer towards the end.
Most know Missouri is the state where the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford began. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution did not give American citizenship to black people—even those born free in this country. That decision was a prelude to Civil War four years later.
But few of us have been taught about a 1938 US Supreme Court decision, Lloyd Gaines v. Missouri, which could have been a historical precedent of equal importance were it not for the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Gaines. By ruling that Mr. Gaines, a 28 year old black man, should be admitted to the University of Missouri Law School, the Supreme Court went against the “separate but equal” doctrine established in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Plessy had established apartheid in the USA by allowing segregation in housing, hiring, education, restrooms and just about every other sphere of society. Except for the color of his skin. Mr. Gaines was qualified for admission to the University of Missouri Law School. However, Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” ruling, allowed public schools to be segregated if a comparable education could be obtained elsewhere in a state, i.e., “white schools” and “negro schools”.
As an aside, still standing ten years ago (and maybe still standing) in an overgrown, weedy, back section of Hayti was the front façade of one such school, a concrete entranceway over which the words “Negro School” were engraved. In contrast, many well-tended former school houses have been preserved around the state, none labelled “whites only” though clearly that’s what they usually were.
Mr. Gaines matriculated through the Missouri’s schools the state had provided for people of his skin color. But the only post-graduate law school in Missouri was the University, intended for whites only. Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled, Gaines must be admitted to UM to do graduate work: there was no option. We will never know what might have happened had Lloyd Gaines broken the color barrier at MU: he abruptly disappeared three months later and was never seen again. In 1950, Missouri began admitting black students to the University (many public schools, however, remained segregated until into the 60’s). Lloyd Gaines was awarded a presumably posthumous honorary law degree in 2006 from UM.
Missouri was a Union State during the Civil War, but it had been a slave state since its inception. And that greatly affected the University of Missouri from its founding days. In 1850, only 18% of Missourians owned slaves but 76% of all students at the University came from slave-owning households. Slave owners were an aristocracy able to afford educating their offspring: no grants or scholarships were available for lower income people. Thus, it is no surprise our state’s first university instilled in students a condescension towards people of color, in keeping with the students’ affluent backgrounds. That tradition continued into the Jim Crow era and beyond.
Yes, progress has been made and overt racism—the kind exhibited by the KKK and White Supremacy groups—has declined since Lloyd Gaines attempted to enroll at the University of Missouri. We have seen the first President of Afro-American heritage elected. Housing segregation exists in fact, but at least it is no longer legal, which is some improvement. Same with public education. Lynchings have plummeted since their heyday between 1890 and 1940, though I would be amiss if I failed to acknowledge there has been a recent uptick in racial attacks these past few years. Hopefully this will be a temporary blip.
But here’s a clue that we still have a long way to go before America will become a true racial melting pot, where skin color at birth does not have significance for longevity, economic well-being, incarceration, access to quality education and a host of other factors: in the history of this great nation there have been nearly 2,000 people elected to serve in the US Senate yet only 10 of them have been black. Were you close in your guess? No black senator has ever represented Missouri. There have been only four black Missouri Representatives in the US House. At this rate, proportional racial diversity in Congress might be achieved sometime in the 23nd Century, if ever.
From slavery to the Jim Crow laws, and on to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and seeking foreign assistance to win elections, it does seem that the wealthy have succeeded in keeping this country divided along racial lines. Anti-immigrant and white nationalist themes have played well as campaign themes; they successfully get many low-paid workers to elect politicians who hate unions, despise subsidized health care, prefer private schools to public education, who seek to end protected retirement benefits and who advocate for unfair taxation in favor of the wealthy. Racism is not just bad for people of color; it sews disharmony, it prevents society from achieving all that is possible and it encourages the very worst in human nature.