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Race Man

The Rise and Fall of the "Fighting Editor," John Mitchell Jr

Ann Field Alexander

Publication Year: 2002

Although he has largely receded from the public consciousness, John Mitchell Jr., the editor and publisher of the Richmond Planet, was well known to many black, and not a few white, Americans in his day. A contemporary of Booker T. Washington, Mitchell contrasted sharply with Washington in temperament. In his career as an editor, politician, and businessman, Mitchell followed the trajectory of optimism, bitter disappointment, and retrenchment that characterized African American life in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South.

Best known for his crusade against lynching in the 1880s, Mitchell was also involved in a number of civil rights crusades that seem more contemporary to the 1950s and 1960s than the turn of that century. He led a boycott against segregated streetcars in 1904 and fought residential segregation in Richmond in 1911. His political career included eight years on the Richmond city council, which ended with disenfranchisement in 1896.

As Jim Crow strengthened its hold on the South, Mitchell, like many African American leaders, turned to creating strong financial institutions within the black community. He became a bank president and urged Planet readers to comport themselves as gentlemen, but a year after he ran for governor in 1921, Mitchell's fortunes suffered a drastic reversal. His bank failed, and he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary. The conviction was overturned on technicalities, but the so-called reforms that allowed state regulation of black businesses had done their worst, and Mitchell died in poverty and some disgrace.

Basing her portrait on thorough primary research conducted over several decades, Ann Field Alexander brings Mitchell to life in all his complexity and contradiction, a combative, resilient figure of protest and accommodation who epitomizes the African American experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Preface

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pp. ix-xiv

On June 6, 1996, the Richmond Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists presented the George Mason Award to John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet, in recognition of his contributions to freedom of the press. The ceremonies took place in a hotel in downtown Richmond, and a series of speakers...

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1. The Making of a “Colored Gentleman”

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pp. 1-14

As a child John Mitchell worked as a servant in the home of James Lyons, a white attorney who had owned his parents before the Civil War. During the 1870s Lyons lived in one of Richmond’s finest houses, a Greek Revival mansion on Grace Street about three blocks west of Capitol Square. One morning Mitchell answered...

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2. “Colored Teachers for Colored Schools”

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pp. 15-27

After his graduation from Richmond Normal in 1881, Mitchell taught for three years in the public schools of Virginia. These were important, formative years. His coming of age coincided with a period of intense political activity, and as a teacher he found himself at the center of disputes that altered the course of Virginia politics...

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3. Founding the Planet

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pp. 28-40

In the fall of 1883, shortly after he began writing for the Globe, Mitchell reported that a group of black Richmonders were planning to publish a weekly newspaper. The first issue would go on sale in December, and the founders hoped to make the Richmond Planet “the liveliest paper ever published in this city.” On December...

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4. “Lynch Law Must Go!”

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pp. 41-59

In his early years as editor, Mitchell designed an advertisement to entice readers to subscribe. “Have You Seen the Planet!” read the headline. “It is a journal published in the interest of colored people every Saturday at Richmond, Va.” Beneath the banner was a picture of the strong arm of the Planet. The ad...

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5. A Manly Protest

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pp. 60-72

On Friday afternoons, as Mitchell and his staff prepared the Planet for delivery to the post office, he must have felt an occasional twinge of apprehension. In the racially charged atmosphere of the 1890s, it was all too possible that his newspaper might fall into the wrong hands and arouse white fury. He told a story once about...

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6. The Politics of Jackson Ward

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pp. 73-88

In many respects Mitchell was a natural candidate for a career in politics. He had a fine speaking voice at a time when politicians were expected to entertain the voters with extravagant displays of oratory. His first important speech was made in 1888 at the state Republican convention in Petersburg when he was twenty-five...

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7. “No Officers, No Fight!”

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pp. 89-101

After Mitchell’s defeat in the council election of 1896, his editorials grew more somber. The exuberant good spirits that had marked his earlier protests gave way to more guarded assessments of the race’s prospects, marked by occasional touches of melancholy and real bitterness. He felt confident that as long as the Reconstruction...

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8. Disfranchisement

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pp. 102-116

The loss of his council seat and the disbanding of the militia forced Mitchell to reconsider the efficacy of protest. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, his editorials grew less strident and his protests less feverish. This was the period black historians have called the “nadir,” that low point when race relations were marked...

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9. “Did God Call the Pastor?”

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pp. 117-130

Mitchell’s reluctance to cooperate with Giles B. Jackson in his maneuverings against disfranchisement probably came as no surprise to his admirers. His reputation as a firebrand made it unlikely that he would appear before white delegates with hat in hand or entertain them with self-effacing anecdotes. More puzzling...

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10. Jim Crow and Race Pride

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pp. 131-142

The early years of the twentieth century would have been a difficult period for Mitchell even had he not been contending with church fights and assertive women. Setbacks had come in such quick succession. The loss of his council seat in 1896 was followed by the fiasco of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the closing of the...

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11. The Lure of Fraternalism

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pp. 143-156

The collapse of the streetcar boycott failed to undermine Mitchell’s faith in the ultimate triumph of right and justice. The “veil of prejudice” would one day be lifted, he promised his readers. “It may take twenty-five years. It may take fifty years; or it may take a hundred years, but it will come.” He warned that “no seeming...

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12. “A Sane and Sensible Businessman”

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pp. 157-169

The central paradox of Mitchell’s business career was that activities designed to make his race independent of white control entangled him more and more deeply in white affairs. Financial success brought freedom but left him open to a different sort of white scrutiny than he had ever experienced as a journalist. As a...

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13. The Perils of Prosperity

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pp. 170-184

Mitchell’s conflicts with white Richmonders during the 1910s came about largely as a result of his efforts to make his bank profitable. Like most black financial institutions, the Mechanics’ Bank was small and undercapitalized, a depressing reality that no amount of cheerful rhetoric about business success or annual...

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14. Collapse

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pp. 185-204

As a black business leader in the Jim Crow South, Mitchell faced challenges that at times must have seemed nearly insurmountable. Committed to racial progress and inspired by entrepreneurial zeal, he had to accommodate himself to an ideology that limited his advance and constrained his every move. He had to...

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Epilogue

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pp. 205-209

Mitchell’s last years were difficult, and the collapse of his bank and the felony conviction meant that his real accomplishments were obscured. His story was too complex to lend itself well to presentations during Negro History Week, and even his most solid achievements—his editing of the Planet, his crusade against lynching...

Notes

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pp. 211-248

Index

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pp. 249-258


E-ISBN-13: 9780813924397
E-ISBN-10: 0813924391
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813921167
Print-ISBN-10: 0813921163

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 14 b&w illus. (14 redacted), 1 map (1 redacted)
Publication Year: 2002

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Richmond (Va.) -- Race relations.
  • Civil rights movements -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History.
  • African American newspapers -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History.
  • Newspaper editors -- Virginia -- Richmond -- Biography.
  • African American politicians -- Virginia -- Richmond -- Biography.
  • African American political activists -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Biography.
  • Mitchell, John, 1863-1929.
  • Richmond (Va.) -- Biography.
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