“When I was a freshman, sitting in my room in Griffin House,” John Guess, Jr. ’71 remembers, “I read that line, and it stuck with me. It’s with me to this day.” From the classic 1902 W.B. Dubois essay “Of the Training of Black Men,” the passage was somewhat of a starting point for Guess’ experience at Johns Hopkins and his lifelong appreciation of the arts.
Raised in segregated Houston, Texas, Guess arrived in Baltimore in 1967 during what he gently recalls as “a very special period” in the history of Johns Hopkins University, and America in general. The city was beginning to embrace civil rights and multiculturalism, but was a far cry from desegregated. The same could be said for Johns Hopkins University, which had only recently welcomed its first black students.
Yet those who came, like Guess, were inspired to hasten Hopkins’ acceptance of different races and cultures. Not far into his freshman year, Guess played a critical role in insisting that the university authorize and recognize a Black Student Union – going as far as occupying the Homewood Museum (formerly used for JHU offices) for a day, when administrators downplayed this request.
That’s the side of his story everyone wants to tell, says Guess. “But what was really the best part of Hopkins for me, as a kid who came from segregation, was being exposed to other cultures and people. I really became cognizant that the African American experience never has, and never will be, impacted by only African Americans.” For example, Guess was the first black president of the JHU Student Government. “There were about 20 or so other black students at the time,” he remembers. “I couldn’t have done that without other people voting for me.”
Thus, ironically during a time of civil divide and turmoil, Guess left the Krieger School feeling culturally broadened. “When I was at Hopkins, the students and professors were very cultural. I was there when people like (poet and musician) Gil Scott Heron and Lowery Stokes Sims (the first black curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) were on campus,” says Guess, “and the Baltimore Museum of Art is just sitting right there at the bottom of the place… can’t miss it.”
Guess put his cross-cultural experience to use upon returning to Houston, where over the years he helped grow a family real estate consulting firm. He stayed heavily involved in the arts as well, working to bring significant works of art to lower income communities and garnering board member and leadership appointments at local institutions like the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, the Houston Arts Alliance, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts Glassell School.
In 2009, Guess was vaulted further into the spotlight of the Houston arts scene when community leaders urged him to lead the revitalization of a dormant effort to establish the Houston Museum of African American Culture. As CEO, Guess was inspired to take the struggling museum in a new direction, and quickly gained a reputation for supporting contemporary African American artists who transcend race and build a multicultural community – not unlike those who inspired him at Hopkins. “Once you turn on to the fact that everybody has something you can learn from,” he says, the sky’s the limit. “I use the arts to expose people to the fact that we are all Africans. The whole history of man started in Africa. At the end of the day, we’re all the same people.” And true art, to paraphrase Dubois, winces not at the ethnicity of its viewer.