Warner McGuinn was born in 1859 in heavily segregated Richmond, Virginia to Jared and Fannie McGuinn, free Negros in the time of U.S. slavery, a time when it was illegal to educate slaves for fear they would revolt.
But being “free” Warner was educated in the segregated public school system, where he was an outstanding student and he graduated from Lincoln University, an all-black school, in 1884. He briefly studied law at another all black school, Howard University, when in 1885 in a stunning development, the Yale University Law School accepted him.
This was a great opportunity to attend one of America’s most prestigious schools. But Warner had no money and worked as many as three jobs at a time to pay for his tuition, books and food. He lived in the home of a school janitor. Then something incredible happened.
He met the famous writer; Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens).Twain was very impressed with this young man and upon hearing of his financial struggles, agreed to pay for his education. “I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask for the benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color,” Twain wrote in a letter to Yale Law School 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’s remarkable generosity freed Warner from his financial struggles and he excelled, graduating No. 1 in the Yale Law School class of 1887. Shortly afterward, he began his law practice in Kansas City, Kansas before moving to Baltimore in 1892 and establishing what became a successful law practice. Warner was also an activist for women’s suffrage (American women could not vote until 1920) equating it to African-Americans’ battle for civil rights.
As a lawyer Warner’s greatest case was in 1917 in federal court, where he persuaded the court it was illegal for Baltimore to segregate black or other people. Later, as a civic leader Warner was twice elected to the Baltimore City Council. But what he became best known for was mentoring a gifted black law student who would later rise to historic prominence. That student was Thurgood Marshall.
Marshall (1908 – 1993) became famous for arguing landmark cases, most notably successfully arguing the Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court (1954), in which public school segregation was declared illegal. Later, Marshall became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice (1967 - 1991).
In his personal life, Warner married Anna L. Wallace in 1892 and they had a daughter Alma born in 1895. Anna passed away in 1929 at the age of 69 after 37 years of marriage and Warner never remarried. He passed away in Alma’s Philadelphia home at the age of 78 in 1937.
But please note the historical significance of what happened when Mark Twain offered a crucial helping hand to Warner, an extraordinary law student. Despite national segregation, he became an outstanding attorney and in turn mentored many young attorneys, color aside, most notably Thurgood Marshall. And it all started with Twain’s generosity.