What Makes a Good Judge? An African American Scrapbook Weighs In – Warner McGuinn

Warner T. McGuinn, in an article celebrating his victory against a segregation ordinance, saved in his own scrapbook.

African Americans in law and politics have known to keep a close eye on the courts, as the scrapbook of Warner Thornton 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 worked against 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, and on issues in other cities, including an article on a textbook controversy in New Orleans – a white writer objected because it

Clipping on Black theater company in Baltimore.

assigned students to write an essay on Booker T. Washington. When newspapers wrote about him, he saved the article, such as when he gave the main oration at a local memorial gathering for Frederick Douglass in 1905.

McGuinn collected news items about the suppression of Black voting in Maryland. His clippings from the white press were ammunition against politicians who had supported any of the three early 20th-century bills aimed at stripping the vote from African Americans in Maryland. He could bring them 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 their 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

Warner McGuinn’s letter pointing out that a nominated Chief Judge had supported suppression of the Black vote.

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. It was important to stop the appointment of judges who opposed Black people voting.

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.

Item on women’s suffrage – who knew that there were ballot songs?

Like many other scrapbook makers, he glued his materials onto the pages of an old book. The book’s title is covered over, but columns of statistics peep out from behind his pasted down clippings. He did not use a Mark Twain self-pasting scrapbook, though Mark Twain fans remember Warner McGuinn because 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. When the club invited Mark Twain to speak in 1885, 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

Label inside the Mark Twain Self-Pasting Scrap-Book gives instructions for use.

office — when Twain offered to pay for the final year and a half of his studies. Twain’s action has become part of the long history of exaggerating white benevolence. William Dean Howells says, by way of explaining that his friend was a “desouthernized Southerner” that he paid “the way of a negro student through Yale.” A handwritten note on McGuinn’s scrapbook in the Yale Library collection says it was made by “the black put threw Yale Law School by Mark Twain.” Twain’s largesse is thus exaggerated, and McGuinn’s status lowered.

Thurgood Marshall, mentored by McGuinn.

But when 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. Justice Marshall continued McGuinn’s work of fighting voter suppression. One of its early cases established the right of Black voters in Texas to vote in Democratic primaries. Thurgood Marshall said Warner T. McGuinn should have been a judge himself.

Warner T. McGuinn’s scrapbooks are in the Yale Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection (MS 1258). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

African American Centenarian Voter in 1891

Clipping from Dorsey’s Colored Centenarians scrapbook, no source given.

A Centenarian at the Polls.

A November 5, 1891 clipping in William Henry Dorsey’s scrapbook reports that John Gibson, a resident of the Philadelphia’s Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons, age 113 years, voted that week. “Mr. Gibson, who is known by the residents of the Home as “Father” Gibson, was taken to the poll in a carriage, and had to be lifted out to vote.”

William Henry Dorsey, the son of an escaped slave, was one of the most prolific scrapbook makers in the United States. He was born in 1837 in Philadelphia, where he made about 400 scrapbooks during the 1860s through about 1903, mostly about Black life and history, divided by subjects. In one small scrapbook, titled “Colored Centenarians,” he collected items beginning in the mid-1860s, about Black people who were over a hundred years old. John Gibson’s was the only achievement Dorsey commented on in the handwritten index he compiled for this scrapbook. Next to John Gibson’s name is the note “voter age 113.” He thought of it as an honor worth commemorating.

Index to Dorsey’s Colored Centenarians’ scrapbook hails John Gibson as a voter.

John Gibson appears in another article in the scrapbook, “Happily Over the Century Mark,” one of a set of patronizing interviews with elderly African Americans in the Home. There we learn that he was born free, though virtually enslaved as a child. He came from Maryland to Philadelphia in the early 1850s. Neither article mentions that the Pennsylvania Constitution had been amended in 1848, to say only white freemen could vote, so he would have been barred from voting until 1870, when the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution declared that the right to vote should not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.


William H. Dorsey, custodian of documents, American Negro Historical Society


“Happily Over the Century Mark” gives John Gibson’s age as 119. If his age seemed flexible, longevity gave the weight of seriousness to Gibson’s dedication to voting and marked the importance of Black full citizenship.

Do you have more to tell about John Gibson? Please chime in!

(“Colored Centenarians” is Scrapbook No. 45 in Cheney University’s Dorsey Scrapbook Collection.)

(The intrepid researcher Reginald Pitts responded to my asking if anyone had more to tell about John Gibson by really digging in. He writes: “A  little more info, if you will–this clipping would have appeared in the Philadelphia “Public Ledger”, the ancestor of the Philadelphia “Inquirer.” The neighboring Wilmington (Del.) “Delaware Gazette and State Journal” for November 12, 1891, page 6, reprints the article and cites the “Ledger” as its source. And old Father Gibson lived many more years at the “Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons” (also known as the “Stephen Smith Home”) at 4400 Belmont avenue (at Girard Avenue), finally being gathered to his ancestors at the ripe old age of 117 on February 18, 1895, according to his death certificate. His occupation was listed as “Gentleman,” which I thought was nice. He was buried at the old Olive Cemetery which was adjacent to the home; about ten years later, when Eden Cemetery was opened in the western suburbs, Father Gibson, along with every else at Olive, was reinterred out there, although his gravestone (if he had ever had one) was lost. Always happy to help!

And Reginald Pitts found him in the census: “in 1880–aged 105 and somewhat feeble, he’s living with his wife Hannah A. (a sprite of fifty-eight) in a home at 2922 Herman (now West Gordon) Street (in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philly) (1880 Federal Census for the City and County of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Supervisor’s District 111, Enumerator’s District 602, Sheet 493 (Page 25) Lines 44-45).”