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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 417

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This is the grave of John Mitchell, Jr.

Born into slavery in Richmond in 1863, Mitchell learned to read as a young child, even though he was also working as a newsboy and then as a carriage boy for a white lawyer who had been in the Confederate Congress. The lawyer was outraged that his boy was being educated–after all, he was black–but his mother, taking power over her and her child’s life during Reconstruction, insisted upon it. It was a new world for the old white southern elite, as much as they would resist it. Mitchell entered high school in 1876 and graduated first in his class. Very skilled at mapmaking, he won a bunch of medals and even got a position as an apprentice in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, which would have been unthinkable both before the Civil War and after 1900, once the Republican Party fully turned its back entirely on black people, which really gained momentum starting in the McKinley years.

Despite his engraving skills, it would be in journalism that Mitchell started to make his mark. In 1883, only 20 years old, he got a job as the Richmond correspondent for the New York Freeman, the pioneering black paper started by T. Thomas Fortune. The next year, he took over the Richmond Planet, while also working as a teacher. His paper would fight for civil rights, take strong stances against lynching, and otherwise putting itself on the line in favor of black freedom at a time when the white South was reestablishing control over the freed population. Not surprisingly, Mitchell received a lot of death threats for his coverage of lynchings. After reporting on one lynching, in 1886, he received a letter than included a rope tied into a noose and was told of his fate if he ever stepped foot in Charlotte County, where the lynching had taken place. Mitchell’s response was to publish in his paper that “There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am so strong in honesty that they pass by me like the idle wind, which I respect not.” Then he armed himself with a couple of pistols, took the train to Charlotte County, and walked the 5 miles out to the lynching site. Pretty tough guy. The Library of Virginia website has a good set of images from the Richmond Planet, highlighting the way Mitchell took on racism. In 1895, three black women were charged with murdering a white woman. The entire basis of the prosecution’s case was the testimony of a white person who kept changing his story. Normally, this wouldn’t have mattered, but the coverage of the Planet was so intensive that the women were found innocent and had their lives saved.

Mitchell also became a leader in the growing black community in Richmond, along with Maggie Walker, helping to establish the institutions of the black middle class, such as banks and fraternal organizations. He founded and became president of the Mechanics Savings Bank and was a leader in the black fraternal organization, the Knight of Pythias. In 1904, Richmond passed an ordinance to segregate its streetcars, eight years after the Plessy case ruled this constitutional. Mitchell organized a boycott of the city’s transportation system in response. It was so effective that the city’s streetcar company had to declare bankruptcy, which it preferred to do rather than give up on its Jim Crow racist principles. Mitchell served a couple of terms on the city council as well, which still allowed black districts to elect their own representatives.

In 1921, Mitchell, sick of his people being ignored by both parties, decided to run for governor on a black Republican ticket. By this time, a lot of black leaders in the South had attempted to embrace the Democratic Party. Realizing that the Republican Party of McKinley/TR/Taft/Harding would do absolutely nothing for them, maybe getting a little patronage for their people from the Democrats was possible and a connection to power could be maintained, despite the violent white supremacy behind Virginia Democrats. Given the reality of the situation, it’s an understandable, if desperate, calculation. Eric Yellin’s Racism in the Nation’s Service is a good book on this issue. But Mitchell wouldn’t go along. For him, both parties were an abomination. Many other black leaders opposed this, saying it would just alienate the white Democrats even more. But he pressed ahead. Of course, he finished behind both the Democratic and white Republican candidates, but this was about making a point.

The next year, the Mechanics Savings Bank failed after 20 years of operation. Mitchell was charged with fraud and theft and was then found guilty. The convictions were both overturned; I certainly don’t have the ability to judge to what extent Mitchell held personal responsibility in the bank’s failure, except to say that there were lots of bank failures in this poorly regulated era. In the aftermath of this plus his governor run the previous year, his political influence reached an all-time low.

Mitchell worked up to the end of his life. Literally. He died at his desk in 1929, at the age of 66. However, the Richmond Planet continued publishing until 1996.

John Mitchell, Jr. is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am tremendously appreciative of you all allowing for this series continue. If you would like this series to visit other leaders of the post-Civil War black community, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. T. Thomas Fortune is in Collingdale, Pennsylvania and Blanche Bruce is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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