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Race Man

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

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 288
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    Race Man
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2439-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. CHAPTER ONE The Making of a “Colored Gentleman”
    (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 the doorbell and discovered a black man standing before him. The man asked to speak to Lyons, so Mitchell ran to fetch his employer. When he told Lyons that a “colored gentleman” was waiting to see him, Lyons grew agitated. There was no such...

  5. CHAPTER TWO “Colored Teachers for Colored Schools”
    (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 and changed the way blacks and whites viewed race relations. It was also a period of rapid development for him personally. He lived away from home for the first time, supervised his first classroom, and wrote his first newspaper column. By the time his career...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Founding the Planet
    (pp. 28-40)

    In the fall of 1883, shortly after he began writing for theGlobe,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 theRichmond Planet“the liveliest paper ever published in this city.” On December 10 he noted that many schoolteachers had come to town to witness the appearance of “a newPlanet.” By mid-January the journal had become, according to his enthusiastic reports, the most popular newspaper in the city.¹ Thus he described the founding of the paper...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR “Lynch Law Must Go!”
    (pp. 41-59)

    In his early years as editor, Mitchell designed an advertisement to entice readers to subscribe. “Have You Seen thePlanet!” 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 thePlanet.The ad continued:

    Do you want to see what the Colored People are doing? Read thePlanet.Do you want to know what Colored People think? Read thePlanet.Do you want to know how many Colored People are hung to trees without due process of law? Read...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE A Manly Protest
    (pp. 60-72)

    On Friday afternoons, as Mitchell and his staff prepared thePlanetfor 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 a white Richmonder who accidentally purchased thePlanetfrom “a little colored boy with a bundle of papers under his arm.” The man assumed he was buying a white daily and realized his mistake only after he had made his purchase. He...

  9. CHAPTER SIX The Politics of Jackson Ward
    (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. “He exhausted his venom before the audience,” reported the DemocraticDispatch.He cataloged the “horrors of Democratic rule” and charged that the Democratic Party was composed of “broken-down aristocrats, who speak of the blood that courses through their veins, who forget that the war is over,...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN “No Officers, No Fight!”
    (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 amendments remained a part of the U.S. Constitution, black voters would someday regain the franchise, but he no longer had much faith in the good intentions of state or federal officials. Nowhere was his disillusionment more evident than in his response to the Spanish-American War.

    When war with...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Disfranchisement
    (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 by violence and oppression and white prejudice seemed intractable. Writing in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois observed that “today the young Negro of the south who would succeed cannot be frank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather he is daily tempted to be...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. CHAPTER NINE “Did God Call the Pastor?”
    (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, however, was his lukewarm response to the efforts of James H. Hayes to overturn the state constitution in the courts. Once the new constitution was proclaimed in May 1902, Hayes announced his intention to mount a legal challenge to disfranchisement and promised to carry the case as far as the U.S. Supreme...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Jim Crow and Race Pride
    (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 armory and the disbanding of the militia in 1899, his defeat in the council elections of 1900, disfranchisement and the four-months school provision in 1902, and the redrawing of the political map and the disappearance of Jackson Ward in 1904. Amid the turmoil...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN The Lure of Fraternalism
    (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 submission on our part should be construed to mean that we have . . . yielded up one iota of the rights which are guaranteed to us in the Declaration of Independence.” Southern blacks bowed down before discriminatory legislation simply because they...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE “A Sane and Sensible Businessman”
    (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 banker he was required to make periodic reports to city and state officials—white men, usually Democrats—who had the power to help him or undermine all he was trying to accomplish. He also found himself communicating on a regular basis with business leaders from the private...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Perils of Prosperity
    (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 visits to ABA conventions could camouflage. As late as 1910 the bank’s assets (paid-in-capital, surplus, and undivided profits) were still under $35,000. Total deposits did not reach $100,000 until 1907, and another decade passed before they reached $200,000. As Mitchell realized, a bank with so little money could not pay employees’ salaries,...

    (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 give the appearance of propping up the region’s racial customs while his very success undermined them. For years he balanced these forces skillfully, making the requisite overtures to powerful whites while always pushing against boundaries and testing limits. After World War I, however, he seemed to lose his balance. On...

  19. Epilogue
    (pp. 205-210)

    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 thePlanet,his crusade against lynching, his work on the city council, his fight for black officers during the Spanish-American War, his leadership of the streetcar boycott—did not fit in well with a celebratory view of Virginia’s past. Although never entirely forgotten in Richmond, he was seldom honored or recognized, at least until...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 211-248)
  21. Index
    (pp. 249-258)