A little help from Twain


Councilman: Warner T. McGuinn well-represented the city as he worked against segregation and spoke out for women's rights.

February 17, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

When Warner T. McGuinn, a black attorney, Yale Law School graduate and former Baltimore City Council member, died in 1937, a report in The Sun provided this epitaph: "No member [of the council] has been more effective or more earnest in endeavoring to promote public welfare."

"Mr. McGuinn ... set an example in his recent service of nonpartisanship in consideration of measures before the Council and when he spoke upon them he showed that he had taken pains to inform himself. His record deserves commendation," the newspaper said.

Between 1890 and 1931, several black Republicans were elected to the City Council, and McGuinn, who was first elected in 1919, later served two terms. He served in the First Branch from 1919 to 1923 and later in the Consolidated Council from 1927 to 1931.

Born in Goochland County, near Richmond, Va., in 1859, he attended public schools there. His half-brother, Rev. William M. Alexander, was pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore and later was the first editor of the Afro-American.

McGuinn earned his bachelor's degree in 1884 from Lincoln University while working his way through school checking hats at the famed Casino in Newport, R.I.

He studied law briefly at Howard University in Washington before entering Yale, from which he took his law degree in 1887. While at New Haven, he served as president of the Law Club, won a prize for oratory and began a friendship with author Mark Twain.

Learning that McGuinn was working his way through law school waiting on tables, Twain offered financial assistance.

In 1985, the existence of several letters written by Twain to the law school dean on McGuinn's behalf became known. The letters showed that Twain, whose "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been called racist, was actually vigorously opposed to racism.

"I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color," Twain wrote to Yale Dean Francis Wayland.

"We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it."

Twain asked the cost of McGuinn's expenses "so that I may send 6, 12, or 24 months' board as the size of the bill may determine."

McGuinn began practicing law in Kansas City, Kan., in 1887, and later edited a black newspaper there before moving to Baltimore in 1891. Passing the Baltimore bar in 1892, he established a law practice and was a partner in the firm of Cummings and McGuinn.

Besides his legal practice, he handled the legal affairs of the Afro-American. After the Republican victories in the 1890s, he was named secretary of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners.

He was an early supporter of women's suffrage and equated it with the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans. In a paper he read on the subject before the congregation of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Baltimore in 1911, he reminded his listeners that all adults, regardless of sex or color, had a right to vote and elect their representatives.

He successfully argued the celebrated "Baltimore Segregation Case" in 1917 in federal court, which prohibited the further segregation of blacks into special city areas.

During his Baltimore years, McGuinn lived with his wife, Anna L. Wallace, at 1911 Division St.

After McGuinn left the City Council, civic gadfly Marie O. Baurenschmidt told reporters: "I wish to God Warner McGuinn were back in the City Council in order to put the kind of civic backbone into the City Fathers that now is needed."

Commenting on the current state of the legal profession and lawyers at a Lincoln University commencement in 1933, he told reporters:

"Some of these fellows are so slick they can take the salt out of biscuits without disturbing the covers. ... Once a lawyer's word was sufficient. Today, few people will take his word unless he signs his name and puts up a bond. ... Unless entrance examinations are changed so as to include character as well as knowledge, the practice of law will degenerate into a dog fight."

In 1937, McGuinn died at his daughter's home in Philadelphia and was buried at Arbutus Memorial Park. He was 73.

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