1897

The turn of the nineteenth century was a time of racism and inequality in the nation, and throughout 1897 these themes seem to be the more prevalent than ever before. The reign of crime, lynching, and injustice toward the black community echoes in every issue of the Planet. One article after another ends with the plea and command that “Lynch-law must go!” This phrase is a meansto provoke change and end discrimination of the law. John Mitchell captivates his readers and motivates them through the development of the stories. He presents the evidence, develops the story, and gives the African American viewpoint.

There is one picture that best encapsulates the year. In 1897, the Richmond Planet includes one image in every paper titled: “The Reign of Lawlessness.” It is an illustration of an actual lynching of 4 black men in Clifton Forge, Virginia, in October of 1891. There is no mention of the particular lynching in 1897, but it stands to represent the anonymity of the many men who lost their lives in this way. Below it lies the “fearful record” of all the people who have fallen victim to lynch-law in that year.

The governmental and civil response to lynching brought about a struggle for justice and equality between black and white people.  “Lynch-law must go!” was the common phrase printed by John Mitchell Jr. in the articles about lynching or crime. Many articles have intriguing titles like “colored man lynched,” “lynched him,” or “fiendish crime.” Within them lie accounts of black men lynched for crimes they committed. Mitchell does not justify the black man’s crimes but compares the inequalities of the punishments between the black man and the mob of lynchers. In one article, he states: “there is not a man in that mob of would be murderers, but who are as guilty as is their intended victim.” John Mitchell Jr. analyzed cases like this with an unbiased eye, and pushed for the judges and the court system to do the same and put an end to lynching and crime against the black man. In July of this year, Mitchell gave a speech in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on the “inequalities of the law” and “lynching and its evils,” dealing with “the condition of the white and colored people before the war” and “why an ill feeling existed between the yeoman white element and the colored people.” Instead of directly portraying his beliefs in lectures, John Mitchell most often took other approaches. He reported a lynching or crime and gave his opinion relative to the specific incident itself.

Mitchell told of lynchings all over the country, in states like Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama, and Florida. Particular, a black man was imprisoned for assault on a white man in Florida. Sylvanus Johnson, the black man, was imprisoned, and two attempted lynchings were stopped as he waited in the county jail. These attempts were thwarted by the enraged black community of Key West, Florida. The tensions were so high that “for the first time in a decade, a southern governor called upon the President of the United States for troops.” The town was on the brink of a race war. The Planet praised this black community for standing up, and said that more people need to “act in such cases and act quickly.” This was a rare occurrence when lynching was prevented. Police and jailers would often disregard the law and hand over the criminals to mobs. In Arkansas, a group of black men assaulted a pair of white men in the midst of a riot. Soon after, “the two ringleaders in the riot were arrested and turned over to the mob.” It is later reported that one of the men was murdered, and the other escaped after being shot several times. With lynching mobs and clear murderers, Mitchell also held people in positions of authority responsible for injustice.

The Planet scrutinized the actions the other newspapers. White publications were primarily mentioned for their lack of reporting on white crime. In order to prove that “crime is not confined to any race of people exclusively,” the Planet reported the white crimes that its white counterpart, the Richmond Dispatch, usually failed to report.  John Mitchell reported the crimes in truth without prejudiced unlike the Richmond Dispatch who he claimed continued “to suffer from chronic attacks of Negro-phobia.” Mitchell would mock them and their old-timed ways of thinking. His sarcasm was not a means to lessen the inequalities faced by black people, but instead it showed how the white press supported this injustice time after time.

The absence of authority and the negligence of the law becomes especially clear in longer articles. Paul Davis, for example, was an 18-year-old in nearby Henrico County wrongly convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl. Paul Davis’ story of intimacy with Cora Twitchell was fabricated by the girl’s father. After Twitchell discovered the relationship his daughter was keeping secret, he had Davis arrested. The charge was statutory rape of his daughter, who he claimed to be fourteen years of age. Later, after discovering “the age of consent was fourteen years, he swore out another warrant charging Paul Davis” for the same crime but claiming that she was younger. In addition to the warrants sworn out against Davis, Cora’s father almost fatally shot him from point blank. As the year progressed, “her infatuation for the colored youth” became clear, and the judge acquitted Paul Davis of his alleged crimes. Twitchell was also acquitted despite blatantly lying about his daughters age and shooting Paul Davis. A story of “the Lynching at Alexandria” takes a different turn. The black criminal was actually responsible for the assault, the Planet admits, but he was punished brutally. It could have been “a simple matter for him to have been tried and condemned in court and executed according to law,” but instead Alexandria resorted to mob violence and lynched the young man. Even the white journals agree that if this man had “been executed by law, the warning would have been more seriously impressed on the community.” This man was hanged from a lamp post in the middle of town. This story made the news on a state level, and Governor O’Ferrall of Virginia spoke out publicly against lynching as a whole, calling it an “awful affair.” At the end of the mob’s reign in Alexandria, those who were taken into custody were promptly released with no reprisal from the authorities. As seen in Alexandria, lynching was not justified through the means the mob achieved it. The white men who murdered this man so brutally depict the anarchy in Virginia and the nation.

The illustration of the four men lynched from a tree provided a symbol for the horrible crimes plaguing the nation. The chart put names to the lives that were being lost, and as the year progressed, stories of each person on the list were depicted by John Mitchell. Their undeserved sacrifice was always present through a legacy and dedication to them in the Planet. This chart was a continual reminder to people everywhere of the outrages that accompanied lynch-law. Mitchell showed the “inequalities of the law” and argued that lynchers were “as guilty as is their intended victim.” Through the Planet members of the black community were able to see for themselves what was happening, not restricted to white papers, such as the Dispatch, always looking to “belittle the citizen of African descent.”

Brian Schrott