Protesters decrying racism at the University of Missouri have caused a national media sensation this week, with wall-to-wall cable TV coverage and some clashes between journalists and a group of activists calling themselves Concerned Student 1950.
But the original "concerned students" of 1950 barely registered national attention. The protest group's name refers to the first black students to enroll at the University of Missouri, who were admitted that year. Most national newspapers at the time all but ignored the monumental moment in the university's history.
It merited this tiny story on page 17 of the New York Times on September 9, 1950, under the headline, "University of Missouri Says It Will Treat Negroes Fairly."
Meanwhile, African-American newspapers around the country fleshed out the details. The Atlanta Daily World profiled one of the first nine African-American students to be admitted, Hazel McDaniel Teabeau. She was 57, and studied for a Ph.D. in Speech and Dramatics. She became the first African-American woman at the university to receive a doctorate in 1959.
The University of Missouri was one of a number of schools in the south to admit black students for the first time in 1950. The Los Angeles Sentinel estimated in November 1950 that more than 100 African-American students were attending southern state schools, including the University of Missouri, and concluded that the integration was a "Southern Success Story." "Not a single untoward incident" was reported, the newspaper said.
The monumental change at the University of Missouri was preceded by a long legal campaign to desegregate the school. In the 1930s and '40s, about 70 African-Americans applied to Mizzou and were rejected, according to a university website chronicling its history of diversity.
With the help of the NAACP, one of those students, Lloyd G. Gaines, sued the university. A 24-year-old from St. Louis, he applied to the university's law school and was rejected. At the time, black students could attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City—but Lincoln offered no law degree. "We are resting the case squarely on the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution," one of Gaines' lawyers, Sidney Redmond, told the Pittsburgh Courier in April 1936.
Three years later, Gaines made history. In January 1939, The Supreme Court issued its final decision requiring the university to admit him. The Court ruled 6-2 that "it was the duty of the State of Missouri either to supply a law school at Lincoln or admit him to its lily-white university," the Courier reported.
But Gaines' legal triumph ended in tragedy. A few months later, in March 1939, he mysteriously disappeared from his Chicago apartment and was never seen again. His case was dismissed. "Sometimes I wish I were just a plain, ordinary man whose name no one recognized," he wrote in a letter to his family that month. Here's the Atlanta Daily World report later that year:
There was shock in the African-American community and concerns that it could have been foul play. "Where is Lloyd Gaines?" wondered the Baltimore Afro-American in October 1939.
With Gaines gone, the legal process started over. The university took eleven years to admit its first black students. But his court decision laid the groundwork for future rulings like Brown v. Board of Education.
One of the last steps was a vote by the all-white student body in March 1949 on whether to support the acceptance of black students. Of the students who voted, 4,156 supported allowing black students to join the school, while 1,847 opposed the change. (It's not clear whether this vote had any legal weight.)
Here's a photo of the voting from The Missouri Alumnus magazine:
Even after the first nine black students joined the school, segregation remained. Gus Ridgel, one of the first black students to enroll, remembered being denied service from neighborhood cafés in an interview with the New York Times this week. (He said he was proud of today's student activists.) When Betty Blankston, one of the original African-American students, requested to share a room with a white girl in 1951, university officials debated the move and even "contemplated sending the names and snapshots of roommates to parents" to get approval, one historian noted. She eventually moved in without a problem.
In July 1954, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the university officially ended segregation. Here's the New York Times' report:
There were many milestones after that. Notably, the first black members of the university's football team, which bolstered the protests this week with its strike, didn't join the team until 1958. The first black professor at the university, Arvarh E. Strickland, was hired in 1969.
But the students protesting on the University of Missouri campus will be the first to note that systemic racism on the campus is far from over.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.