Tuesday, 22 April 2014


                            BLACK                 SOCIAL             HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 John Mitchell, Jr. (July 11, 1863 – December 3, 1929) was an African American businessmannewspaper editorcivil rights activist, and politician in Richmond, Virginia. As editor of the Richmond Planet, he frequently published articles in favor of racial equality. In 1904, he organized a black boycott of the city's segregated trolley system.
He founded and served as president of the Mechanics Savings Bank in the city. He served as a city alderman for two terms, and was active in fraternal and professional organizations. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican Party candidate for governor in 1921.

Early life and education

John Mitchell, Jr. was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia in 1863, shortly before the end of the American Civil War and of slavery.[1] He grew up to become a civic leader and civil rights activist in Richmond's Jackson Ward community. The neighborhood had long had free African Americans, and it became a center of the freedmen's community after the war; it became known as the “Black Wall Street of America.” The black population in the city increased as freedmen migrated there for work and to enjoy a strong black community.


In 1884 at the age of 21, Mitchell joined the Richmond Planet, a newly founded African-American newspaper, and was made an editor. He had been a teacher in the local schools. "It was under his tenure that the Planet gained its well-deserved reputation as a proponent of racial equality and of rights for the African-American community."[2]
Mitchell reported fearlessly and campaigned against racist lynching, which increased in the late nineteenth century as whites worked to re-establish white supremacy and Jim Crowafter the end of the Reconstruction era. Like Ida B. Tarbell, he reported lynchings and was sometimes endangered:
"Mitchell himself was threatened with hanging at the hands of a Charlotte County mob angered by his reporting of the lynching, there, of Richard Walker in May 1886. Mitchell was sent a rope with a note attached warning him that he would be lynched himself if he ever set foot in the county. In reply, and borrowing a line fromShakespeare, Mitchell had this to say : “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, armed with two Smith and Wesson pistols, he boarded a train for Smithville and undeterred, walked the five miles from the station to the site of the hanging." [Maurice Duke and Daniel P. Jordan, eds., A Richmond Reader: 1733-1983, (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983), pp. 327-328][3]
Mitchell was gregarious and active; he became a leader of the Knights of Pythias, an African-American fraternal organization, both locally and on the state level, where he led it into the 1920s.[2] He was also president of the National Afro-American Press Association.[2] Mitchell was the founder and president of the Mechanics Savings Bank in Richmond.[4]It was part of the rise of black-owned businesses in the city.
In 1904, Richmond passed a new law to enforce segregated seating areas on its trolleys. In protest, Mitchell helped organize mass meetings and a boycott by blacks of the system. As Mitchell gleefully covered in his article: "Street Car Trap", on the first day of the new system, only whites were arrested for refusing to change their seats; some could not be bothered to observe the new rules or had not realized the change was happening.[5] The electric trolley system had been created in 1888. Suffering the loss of black business, but refusing to give up its Jim Crow policy, the trolley company went into receivership.[6]


In 1892 and 1894, Mitchell was elected to a seat as a Richmond city alderman from Jackson Ward.[2] It was another facet of his widespread connections in the community.
In a more ambitious move, in 1921 Mitchell ran for governor, on what was called a "Lily Black" Republican Party ticket (this was an all African-American off-shoot). His campaign was considered controversial and opposed by some Black newspapers, such as the Journal and Guide of Norfolk; editors believed his run would split the Black vote and cost them influence with the Democratic Party candidate who won the office.[2] Mitchell did not win.
He died at his desk in December 1929.[2] He is buried in an unmarked grave in Richmond’s Evergreen Cemetery. The grave at Evergreen Cemetery is marked, and reads: "EDITOR, BANKER, ALDERMAN AND PIONEER OF CIVIL RIGHTS A MAN WHO WOULD WALK INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH TO SERVE HIS RACE" The marker goes on to quote Isaiah: "Behold I have given him for a witness to the people a leader and commander to the people." Isaiah 55:4

Legacy and honors

  • In 1996, the Library of Virginia had an extensive exhibit about John Mitchell, Jr. and his contributions to the Richmond Planet and the community in his public life.