Who Tells The Story?: The Scrapbook of Warner McGuinn, A Civil Rights Activist in Mark Twain’s Shadow
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on the intersections of U.S. literature, politics, & 19th-century scrapbooks, please check out Prof. Garvey’s blog, Scrapbook History.
As the November 3, 2020 election approaches, I have been writing pieces about how late nineteenth and early twentieth century scrapbook makers collected material about voting. It came up often in my research for Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.
Scrapbook makers collected many items from the newspapers that were deeply significant to them about why people, especially women and Black people, fought for the right to vote, how they used their vote, how they fought voter suppression, and sometimes how they honored those who fought and voted. Some of these scrapbook makers used Mark Twain’s patented invention, the Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrapbook, which will be the topic of another article. Their scrapbooks were tools in their struggles.
What can the scrapbook of Warner Thornton McGuinn, an African American civil rights lawyer who knew Mark Twain, tell us about the struggle to keep the right to vote? What can the way McGuinn’s own story has been passed along tell us about how stories about Black people are often reshaped to put whites at the center?
African Americans in law and politics have long known to keep a close eye on the courts, as the scrapbook of Warner McGuinn, an African American lawyer, shows. In an era when newspapers rarely published their indexes and libraries did not always save dailies, scrapbooks stored up evidence of politicians’ past activities and positions and were a tool African Americans in law and politics used to keep a close eye on the courts.
McGuinn was an 1887 Yale Law School graduate who moved to Baltimore in 1891, and began his scrapbook at the turn of the century. His scrapbook tracks his law career and the public offices he held. He fought a Maryland law mandating racial segregation in housing. He clipped items about Black life in Baltimore, such as the founding of a Negro theater company in 1916. He understood that education and culture were battlegrounds, and so his inquisitive eye picked out an article on a textbook controversy in New Orleans – a white writer objected because the textbook assigned students to write an essay on Booker T. Washington. Like many public figures, when newspapers wrote about McGuinn, he saved the clippings, such as when he gave the main oration at a local memorial gathering for Frederick Douglass in 1905.
McGuinn was especially concerned about Maryland’s suppression of Black voting. His clippings from the white press on this were ammunition against politicians who had supported any of the three early 20th-century bills aimed at stripping the vote from African American Marylanders. Saving them in scrapbook let him bring the clippings out as evidence of a politician’s earlier actions. In a copy — very possibly a facsimile created to circulate — of his own typed 1915 letter to the Baltimore Sun, complaining of the paper’s endorsement of Robert Biggs for Chief Judge in Baltimore, which he pasted into his scrapbook, he refers to an article he’d saved from six years earlier.
Biggs had supported the Straus Amendment, “WHICH AMENDMENT WAS DESIGNED TO TAKE FROM COLORED VOTERS IN THIS CITY AND STATE THE RIGHT OF SUFFRAGE,” as is evident from a 1909 newspaper clipping from the Baltimore Sun. “IF MR. BIGGS, IN 1909, WAS IN FAVOR OF DISFRANCHISING US, WHAT RIGHT HAS HE NOW TO ASK OR EXPECT OUR SUPPORT?” McGuinn continues in all caps. He concludes with a plea for a nonpartisan judiciary, and support for his candidate, Morris Soper. He knew it was important to stop the appointment of judges who were willing to block Black people from voting.
It’s a lesson still relevant today.
Warner McGuinn connected Black and women’s disenfranchisement, and fought for women’s suffrage, speaking out for it and collecting pro-suffrage songs and poems in his scrapbook.
Mark Twain & Warner McGuinn
Like many other scrapbook makers, McGuinn glued materials onto the pages of an old book. I’ve gotten used to seeing the kind of layering of clippings onto outdated ledgers, government reports and other books. They can create suggestive and tantalizing juxtapositions, as when Alice Dunbar-Nelson pasted clippings of her speaking tour on women’s suffrage into an old, probably unused, household accounts book. Was she saying, Take that, cooking and cleaning! Or did “housekeeping of the community,” a suffragist slogan, win out over individual homemaking?
I wasn’t surprised to find McGuinn’s scrapbook’s title covered over, but columns of statistics and pie charts peeping out from behind his pasted-down clippings. When Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin learned about McGuinn’s connection to Twain and first saw the scrapbook in 1985, she found reading it “a disorienting experience, since many of the pages are covered with pages torn from a volume titled Vital Statistics, on top of which are pasted the newspaper clippings McGuinn saved. Like a curiously postmodern palimpsest, mortality and disease statistics in specific wards and districts in Baltimore and the District of Columbia broken down into ‘white’ and ‘colored’ columns frame stories about disenfranchisement, discrimination, segregation, and racially motivated violence.”
Warner McGuinn did not use a Mark Twain self-pasting scrapbook, though Mark Twain fans and scholars may remember that Twain helped pay for a portion of McGuinn’s time at Yale Law School. McGuinn was a law student and president of the Law School’s Kent Club, which hosted talks and debates on social and political questions. The club invited Mark Twain to speak in 1885 and McGuinn greatly impressed Twain when he showed him around the campus.
McGuinn was working his way through law school – first as a waiter, and then in a law office — before Twain offered to pay for the final year or year and a half of his studies. McGuinn first turned down the offer, relayed through the school’s dean, saying, “I am making it all right.” The dean pressed him to accept it, and finish law school “unhampered.”
Twain’s action has become part of a long history of trumpeting white benevolence and downplaying Black achievement. Surely it helped McGuinn not to have to earn his tuition while in law school. It is not Mark Twain’s fault that others have ballyhooed his action and distorted it. But playing up this contribution has fit neatly into the trope of the white savior. The trope is so familiar that in more recent times, fictions that use it slide into newspapers in the guise of fact.
In a glaring example, in 1995, Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle wrote about the families of two boys with cancer, one Black and one white, who meet in the hospital. When the Black child dies, the white family sends the Black family a much appreciated check, saving their home from foreclosure. The Globe ran the account, framed as an antidote to racially divisive news. It fit the expected sentimental pattern so well that a Reader’s Digest editor remembered it three years later. He wanted to publish it, but his fact-checking showed that it was a fabrication. When the actual incident it was loosely based on came to light, it involved two white families. The trope of white uplifting Black was more attractive.
This same trope has been pressed into service to exonerate Twain of racism. William Dean Howells exaggerated Twain’s contribution and lowered McGuinn’s status, by writing that his friend was a “desouthernized Southerner” and that he paid “the way of a negro student through Yale.” A handwritten note attached to McGuinn’s scrapbook in the Yale Library collection refers to McGuinn as “the black put threw [sic] Yale Law School by Mark Twain.” This note similarly overstates Twain’s largesse, while undercutting McGuinn’s achievement. It reduces his life to Mark Twain’s interaction with him, and doesn’t acknowledge him as a Yale alumnus with a distinguished career as public servant and activist.
When Warner McGuinn reached out to help others, he left a mark, and his decades of activism stretched farther into the future. He mentored the groundbreaking civil rights attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who established the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Thurgood Marshall said Warner T. McGuinn should have been a judge himself. Justice Marshall continued McGuinn’s work of fighting voter suppression. One of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund’s early cases established the right of Black voters in Texas to vote in Democratic primaries. Voter suppression has become more subtle, but if he were alive and still keeping his scrapbook now, McGuinn would have many items to clip on voter suppression, and civil rights workers still fighting to make sure Black and brown people have equal access to voting.
Ellen Gruber Garvey is a Emerita Professor at New Jersey City University and author of Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2013). She currently writes the blog, Scrapbook History, using the scrapbooks of the nineteenth century to elucidate resilient patterns in U.S. politics.
Warner T. McGuinn’s scrapbooks are in the Yale Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection (MS 1258). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library