On March 19, 1939, Lloyd Gaines walked out of the house where he was staying in Chicago. No one would ever see him again.
Gaines graduated from Lincoln University, a historically black college in Jefferson City, and had become a prominent face in the civil rights struggle of the time.
He was fighting to gain admission into the University of Missouri School of Law because Lincoln did not have a law school. His case was petitioned to the Supreme Court on the grounds that, since there was no law school available to him within the state, his 'separate but equal' rights were being violated, and in December 1938, the Court ruled in Gaines' favor. The Missouri Supreme Court, which had denied Gaines, would have to rehear his case in August 1939.
Gaines was never found, and in his absence conflicting rumors swirled — he had been murdered, he had committed suicide, he had moved to Mexico City, he had moved to New York. They were all believable; he had made it clear that he was growing tired of being a symbol in a fight, and nationwide, the fight still had a long way to go.
More than 75 years later, the question of “What happened to Lloyd Gaines?” has never been answered.
Two years after his disappearance, Lucile Bluford, a black journalist from Kansas City, attempted to enroll into the Mizzou School of Journalism's graduate program. When she was denied, the Missouri Supreme Court would ultimately rule in her favor ... just in time for World War II to break out. The graduate program closed for a few years.
Finally, 11 years after Gaines' disappearance and after a couple of false starts, Mizzou students voted in support of black students' admission to Mizzou, albeit with a catch: They would be allowed in courses and programs not offered at Lincoln.
In the largest turnout of students ever to participate here in a student poll or election, University of Missouri students supported by two-to-one majority proposals of the Board of Curators that Negroes be admitted to the university as students. [...]
Recommendations were made several weeks ago to the Civil Rights Committee of the Legislature that Negroes be admitted to the university "in those divisions and curricula where instruction of equivalent character is not offered at Lincoln University." The limitation would permit enrollment here in medicine, engineering, graduate and certain other professional courses not offered at Lincoln.
Gus Ridgel, Mizzou's first official black student, told the AP decades later that the overwhelming support of students polled helped to allay any concerns about his safety on campus. But "campus" wasn't "Columbia."
"I could go anywhere I wanted to on campus, but if I crossed the street to a coffee shop, or any of the small restaurants, I would not be served," he said.
In pure Missouri fashion, the school and state basically split down the middle in the integration timeline. Most Big Ten schools had long since begun admitting black students (and student athletes), as had many conference mates within the Big 6. Meanwhile, most southeastern schools were still a decade or two away from doing so.
College football's advanced age creates some fascinating, often disturbing cultural contrasts. This series will focus quite a bit on Don Faurot's recruiting policies and how he believed that "Missouri boys" should represent Missouri's university.
But not just any "Missouri boy" could apply, even after integration of the school.
College football coaches have long been among the most highly-paid employees in a given state, but they have predictably taken a passive role when it comes to heavier topics like integration. Integration was, in some strange way, a method of negotiation.
Oklahoma had integrated its football by the mid-1950s, as had most of the rest of the Big 6. But rumor had it that head coach Bud Wilkinson was shying away from the practice because of the negative feedback he got from boosters. The march toward progress takes so much more time than it should, and it engenders some pretty gross pushback along the way.
At Arkansas, Frank Broyles’ team remained segregated until either the mid-1960s (when a black player named Darrell Brown walked on to the freshman team for a year) or 1970 (when the Hogs welcomed their first black scholarship player). The fan base wasn’t ready for it, so he didn’t push it.
At Missouri in 1957, however, when Broyles was a young head coach trying to figure out where his talent was going to come from, he was totally open to integration.
Broyles said he quickly accepted the offer — a one-year contract for $12,000 — even though it was minus-9 degrees that January day in Columbia, Mo., and Faurot had implemented what was called "The Missouri Plan" with the goal being to limit recruiting to the state of Missouri.
Broyles didn’t like the idea of limiting his recruiting area, but he told Missouri’s administrators he could work under the plan if he were allowed to integrate the football program.
Missouri’s first black players, running backs Norris Stevenson of St. Louis and Mel West of Jefferson, were recruited by Broyles. They were part of a talented recruiting class that contributed heavily to Missouri making back-to-back Orange Bowl appearances after the 1959 and 1960 seasons.
Integration was a business decision for Broyles. That certainly doesn’t make him heroic, nor does it cover Mizzou in glory that Broyles thought the fan base might accept it. It was already the late-1950s, after all.
Still, Broyles was at least not in objection to the practice out of personal principle, and the school didn’t stand in his way. That’s something, I guess.
It certainly didn’t take Broyles long to make progress in this era. He had only been in town a few weeks when St. Louis Vashon halfback Norris Stevenson enrolled at Mizzou in January 1957.
But a question weighs heavily: Why did it take until Broyles’ hire to integrate?
In 1941, staring at a situation in which he had a lot of athletes and no pure quarterback, Faurot, through pure necessity, invented a formation he called the Split-T. His option game completely changed college football. It ended up being one of the most progressive tactical decisions a coach has ever made, and in a typically conservative sport, no less.
A decade later, he faced a different problem: talent. His insistence on recruiting in-state kids may have made sense in theory, but he was losing a lot of nearby players to out-of-state schools that weren’t working by the same “within the borders” philosophy.
Faurot’s 1950s teams were bereft of the talent they needed to compete. His coaching abilities had not diminished, and his Split-T was still sound enough to win Bud Wilkinson some national titles at Oklahoma. But he was struggling to attract enough talent to Columbia, and in so many ways it was his own fault. Not only was he the one who chose the “Missouri boys only” approach ... he also didn’t go after all available Missouri boys. And he could have done so without challenging the status quo — Mizzou, after all, had already begun integrating, however slowly.
Maybe this makes sense. Faurot was Missouri, and Missouri has forever been slow to change.
The university, like the Cardinals, was a captive of the dominant culture in the state, rather than a leader in the realm of race relations. The timid approach was characteristic of much of Missouri life and one of the keys to the state's sluggish rate of development. Change was taking place, even in race relations, but most Missourians seemed temperamentally opposed to fast-paced change, at least in areas like education and race. Refusing to build a powerful educational system or to develop fully the potential of its black people, the state was not gaining ground on the nation's leading states or offering them and others a model in such areas as race relations.
In some way, maybe Mizzou didn’t deserve to be seen as progressive in this way.
It’s impossible not to imagine what if, though. When Mizzou reached No. 1 for the first time in 1960, a massive game from Stevenson in Norman sealed the deal. He scored on rushes of 77 and 60 yards in a 41-19 romp over Oklahoma. The speed with which he hit the left sideline and broke the angles of the defenders — defenders from Oklahoma, no less, from a team that had defeated the Tigers 14 straight times — who thought they would catch him ... that was the sign that Missouri was a truly elite, national-title caliber team.
Stevenson was awarded the game ball in maybe the most significant win in Missouri history to date.
Stevenson wasn’t particularly special, though. Actually, let me rephrase. He was really good, obviously, but he was among a large handful of black St. Louis standouts in the 1950s — he wasn’t the standout. Hell, he wasn’t even the standout Stevenson. His brother had come through Vashon a few years earlier but had to go to Iowa State to play football.
There’s no resolution to this piece. The point isn’t to scream “Don Faurot was racist!” or anything like that. I didn’t know him, and based on his public actions he was neither ahead of nor behind the times in this realm.
Still, he struggled to get talented players in black and gold uniforms at the end of his tenure. and help had been available for quite a while if he, or Mizzou, had been willing to look for it. No matter what, that’s disappointing.