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Mitchell, John, Jr.locked

(11 July 1863–03 December 1929)
  • Willard B. Gatewood

Mitchell, John, Jr. (11 July 1863–03 December 1929), newspaper editor and banker, was born near Richmond, Virginia, on the estate of James Lyons, where his parents, John Mitchell and Rebecca (maiden name unknown), were house slaves. After gaining their freedom, the Mitchells were employed by Lyons as servants in his mansion in the city, where their son performed various chores and became a keen observer of the rituals of polite society practiced there. Mitchell’s mother exerted the decisive influence on him during his formative years: she instilled in him a fierce sense of racial pride, instructed him in the ways of gentlemanly conduct, and insisted on his regular attendance at the First African Baptist Church, where he was baptized at the age of fourteen. Over the objections of her white employer, Rebecca Mitchell arranged for her son’s education, first in a private school and later in public schools. An intensely competitive student with considerable artistic ability, Mitchell regularly won medals for superior performance and graduated at the head of his class at the Richmond Normal and High School in 1881.

Failure to obtain an apprenticeship in architecture prompted Mitchell to seek employment as a teacher. In 1883, after teaching for two years in Fredericksburg, Virginia, he returned to Richmond where he had secured a post in the city’s public schools. A conspicuous figure in the social, cultural, and religious life of Richmond’s black community, he also served as a correspondent for the New York Globe, a leading black newspaper. For several years beginning in 1883 he contributed a weekly column to the Globe on events in black Richmond under the pen name “More.” A strikingly handsome, courtly man, always fashionably attired, Mitchell never lacked for female companionship. Although he carried on a courtship over several decades with Marietta Chiles, a normal school classmate, he remained a bachelor. An intensely private man, he impressed many as a lonely, solitary figure.

When after a year Mitchell lost his teaching job in Richmond because of political changes in the city, he embarked on a career in journalism as editor of the Richmond Planet, a black weekly founded in 1883. Assuming direction of the virtually bankrupt newspaper with the help of friends in December 1884, Mitchell remained its editor for the next forty-five years. In time he modernized the newspaper’s equipment, enlivened its pages with his own art work, increased its circulation, and ultimately transformed the Planet Publishing Company into a modestly profitable enterprise. Active in the Colored Press Association by the mid-1880s, he served as its president from 1890 to 1894. Despite a succession of legal battles that challenged his ownership of the Planet, Mitchell managed to retain control and to pursue his intensely personal style of journalism.

The Planet was in many respects a model weekly paper, but its principal distinction lay in Mitchell’s pithy and fiery editorials. Known as “the fighting editor,” Mitchell continually protested all forms of racial discrimination and ridiculed the pretensions and hypocrisies of white prejudice. As the racial climate deteriorated in the late nineteenth century, he advised blacks to arm themselves in self-defense on the grounds that quiet submission to white oppression only increased assaults on their dignity. Described as “courageous almost to a fault,” the Planet’s editor on one occasion wrote that the South needed “Jim Crow beds” far more than it needed “Jim Crow cars” and advocated legislation to penalize white men who kept black mistresses. Oblivious to threats on his life, Mitchell, on another occasion, armed himself and personally went into the countryside to investigate a lynching.

In addition to gaining recognition as a crusading editor who boldly defended the civil rights of African Americans, Mitchell also achieved considerable prominence in Virginia’s Republican party. Chosen as a delegate to the party’s national convention in 1888 and as an alternate delegate four years later, he served as a member of the Richmond City Council from the predominantly black Jackson Ward between 1888 and 1896. Convinced that the repeated use of fraud and racism by Democrats and the spread of lily-whitism among Republicans precluded any chance of blacks and poor whites uniting politically, Mitchell sought to enlist the support of upper-class, conservative whites. But his efforts were futile, as evidenced by his losing a bid to regain his seat on the city council in 1900 and the disfranchisement of Virginia blacks two years later.

Although Mitchell moderated the militancy of his rhetoric late in the 1890s, he was still capable of wielding a pen “dipped in vitriol.” As an opponent of imperialism, for example, he denounced the Spanish-American War as “a war of conquest” that would subject the dark-skinned inhabitants of Cuba and the Philippines to the horrors of racism rampant in the South. After the turn of the century Mitchell moved closer to, but never fully embraced, the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Differences in their styles and tactics were abundantly evident in Mitchell’s outspoken condemnation of disfranchisement in 1902, his leadership of a boycott to protest Richmond’s segregated street cars two years later, his vocal opposition to the city’s successful effort to legalize residential segregation in 1911, and his futile campaign for governor of Virginia on a “lily-black” ticket in 1921.

When disfranchisement effectively ended his political career, Mitchell turned to economic development as a means of assisting blacks in their struggle for first-class citizenship. In 1902 he founded the Mechanics Savings Bank, which grew rapidly—in part because of funds deposited by the Virginia chapter of the Knights of Pythias that he headed. As the founder and president of what was publicized as a showpiece of black enterprise, Mitchell won the support and admiration of much of the white business community and for many years was the only African-American member of the American Bankers Association. When the bank failed in 1922, he was indicted for mismanagement. Although he was not convicted of the charge, depositors blamed him for their misfortune. Unable to regain the respect he had so long enjoyed among African Americans, Mitchell died a poor man seven years after the bank’s failure and was buried in Richmond’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Bibliography

The extant files of the Richmond Planet (1883–1929) provide essential information on the career of John Mitchell, Jr., while Ann F. Alexander, “Black Protest in the New South: John Mitchell, Jr., 1863–1929, and the Richmond Planet” (Ph.D. diss., Duke Univ., 1972), is the most thorough scholarly treatment of his life. Also useful are William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1970); I. Garland Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (1891); Henry Lewis Suggs, ed., The Black Press in the South, 1865–1979 (1983); Willard B. Gatewood, “A Negro Editor on Imperialism: John Mitchell, 1898–1901,” Journalism Quarterly 49 (Spring 1972): 43–50, 60; and Clay Perry, “John P. Mitchell, Virginia’s Journalist of Reform,” Journalism History 4 (Winter 1977–1978): 142–47, 156.