Ewart Guinier, labor activist and political candidate, was the first chairman of Harvard University’s Afro-American Studies Department. Born in Panama in 1910, Guinier migrated to the United States in 1925 and attended high school in Boston, Massachusetts. After his acceptance into the Harvard University Class of 1933, Guinier was denied a scholarship because he allegedly did not submit a photograph with his application, and because of his race, he was not permitted to reside in the all-white dormitories. Nonetheless, Guinier started classes at Harvard but dropped out in 1931 due to the high tuition costs. He transferred to the City University of New York where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1935. He later received his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1939 and his law degree from New York University in 1959.
Guinier served in Hawaii as a warrant officer in the segregated United States Army during World War Two. He met his future wife Genii Paprin, a young woman of Jewish descent, at a labor canteen in Honolulu in August 1945. Even though interracial marriages were illegal in most states at that time, the couple married in October of that year. They moved to Hollis, Queens in 1956 and were the first racially-mixed family in their neighborhood. Together they raised three daughters, Lani, Saury, and Marie Guinier.
Guinier was active in the struggle for African American worker’s rights and community organizing efforts from 1938 to 1962. In the late 1930s, Guinier helped organize community efforts to open employment opportunities for African Americans in Harlem’s main shopping district and the public transportation system in New York.
Guinier was active in the labor movement as well. In 1940, he became the International Secretary-Treasurer of the United Public Workers of America Union. Nine years later, in 1949, he was the American Labor Party’s presidential candidate for the Borough of Manhattan presidency, and the following, year he became vice-president of the National Negro Labor Council. In the 1950s and 1960s, Guinier drafted articles, speeches, and correspondence for the Harlem Affairs Committee, the National Urban League, and the Jamaica Coordinating Council. While his earliest writings primarily addressed labor issues and electoral politics, his later works both advocate a more extensive agenda for black studies and tackle controversial issues like institutional racism in higher education.
In 1969, Harvard University selected Guinier to become the first chair of its newly formed African American Studies Department, a post he held until 1976. During his term in office, Guinier was inspirational to not only black professors, administrators, and students — who frequently wrote to him for assistance in establishing black studies programs on their campuses – but he also helped create an intellectual environment at Harvard which helped legitimize black studies to academic and non-academic skeptics across the nation. Guinier retained a full professorship at Harvard until his retirement in 1980.
In 1990, Ewart Guinier died from Alzheimer’s disease at age 79 in the Bedford, Massachusetts Veteran’s Hospital.