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James E. Guilford, Rox legend, passes away

Known as an artist and master barber, Guilford lived to 104

James E. Guilford, Rox legend, passes away
James E. Guilford poses with one of his portraits. (Photo: Don West/Banner archive)

James Edward Guilford, Jr; a Roxbury legend, was known as a skilled barber and artist. He passed away on December 16, at the age of 104.

Guilford lived Roxbury’s history with it. Born on Sterling Street in 1911, he bore witness to a changing Roxbury through urban renewal, the jazz age and the Great Depression, only leaving for three years of military service in World War II. This November, he received the Puddingstone Award, an honor given by Discover Roxbury to those residents who preserve the neighborhood.

In his youth, he attended the esteemed Boston Latin School, where he was the only black student on the 32-member track team. He graduated in 1928 and proceeded with studies at Northeastern University School of Law, Wilfred’s Academy of Beauty Culture and the Lee Institute of Real Estate.

Hair stylist of the stars

Guilford was known as “the hair stylist of the stars,” he recalled in a documentary. “A lot of show people who came into Boston came to me,” he said.

He cut the hair of jazz singer Sarah Vaughn, major league baseball star Jackie Robinson and world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. The list of famous clients includes Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Count Basie.

Guilford started cutting hair when he was twelve. In his teens, he worked at a barbershop during the summers and after school. At 23, he opened his first barbershop, Dunbar Barbers, on Tremont Street and ran it for eight years, until he was drafted.

When he returned from the war, he went back to Tremont Street to open Jimmy Guilford’s Men’s Hairstyling Salon. In 1962, Guilford became the first African American elected president of the Associated Master Barbers of Massachusetts. He retired in 1979, after nearly seven decades practicing his craft.

WWII tour

Guilford served in the U.S. Army’s 29th Quartermaster Regiment in the South Pacific. The experience haunted him for years after, he said in a documentary.

He was wounded in northern Guinea while helping transport food to the front lines. Enemy planes bombed the transport ship, exploding the smoke stack and tearing through the front hatch. Guilford escaped the sinking ship to a raft, with the help of a friend, Pvt. George Watson. His friend died while saving other soldiers from the disaster.

Guilford later wrote a book to memorialize Private Watson and represented him in ceremonies. Guilford’s army experience later served as the focus on an Emmy-winning short documentary “Surviving The War: the Story of James E. Guildford, Jr.” directed by Jesse J. Logan.

Guilford also was recognized as an artist who exhibited widely, with paintings, water colors and drawings featured in private collections. Guilford’s oil painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. is displayed in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in Cambridge.

Guilford also worked to advance the Boston artist community. He was a Piano Craft Guild Artists’ Association member and founding member and president of the Boston Afro-American Artists, Inc.

Family and services

James Guilford, Jr. is the father of three children — Marcia Davenport, Jeanne Eason and James Guilford III — a grandfather to five and great-grandfather to one.

Funeral services were held at Davis Funeral Home Tuesday morning and he was put to rest at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Guilford’s memory can be made to The Boys and Girls Clubs, Yawkey Club of Roxbury or the Purple Heart Foundation.