What the African American citizens of Virginia experienced in the year 1898 was more or less a roller coaster of wins and losses. Victories frequently appeared only to quickly reveal themselves as wolves in sheep's clothing. The constant bombardment of racist actions and government policies on the hope of the Richmond Planet editor, John Mitchell, Jr. and black Virginians in addition to a war with Spain did not just continue the prejudice of the past centuries, but paved the way for more segregation and inequality between races in the years to come.
The defeat of an attempt to reinstate a whipping post as punishment for criminals proved the only true victory for African American Virginians. Introduced to the Virginia state legislature in 1897, the majority of the debate occurred in the first months of the next year. The Planet's editorials in opposition to the bill gained attention from newspapers around the country. Even white newspapers, such as the Boston Globe, supported John Mitchell, Jr. in his opinion that such a bill, reminiscent of the slave punishment not yet forgotten, was unconstitutional. In late February of 1898, the white politicians of the Virginia House of Delegates displayed their agreement with Mitchell's reasoning when they voted against the bill. The Planet published the response of a black Virginian to the ruling in which he stated he had never been prouder to live in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Just as the trumpets sounded in favor of the African American Virginians, filling them with a surge of hope, tragedy struck the United States. Tensions off the Gulf coast in the Spanish territory of Cuba came to head when the United States battleship, U.S.S. Maine, suddenly exploded just off the shore of the island. While Spain suggested it was an accident, the majority of Americans, as well as the native Cubans, suspected foul play. The death of 266 Americans, though all white, caused sadness in the hearts of Mitchell and many other African Americans. The first generation of free black citizens was coming of age and embracing its nation with a patriotism strong enough to rival that of the white southerners.
Despite his grieving the loss of his fellow Americans, Mitchell did not rest in fighting for racial equality within the pages of the Planet. He quickly noticed a discrepancy in the government's actions. The United States government reacted to the Maine disaster as one would expect: The Navy investigated the explosion and compensated the families of the soldiers who died for their loss. Meanwhile, a white mob in North Carolina lynched their black postmaster, an employee of the national government. Not only was his death enough to press charges against the mass of killers, but they murdered his wife and newborn baby and raped and beat his two adolescent daughters. The North Carolinian authorities did little to locate the names of each offender, let alone bring the case to trial. Outraged, Mitchell wrote, "Thousands of dollars have been appropriated for the Maine’s sufferers, what will be offered for the maimed daughters of Postmaster Baker?" This inconsistency was only the first of a long list of inconsistencies on the part of the United States government towards African Americans during the Spanish-American conflict.
To combat these injustices, Mitchell compared the plight of the African Americans to that of the Cubans. White Europeans captured and enslaved the ancestors of these two groups, shipping them from Africa to the Americas. With slavery ended in both countries within the last half a century, Mitchell felt African Americans could truly relate to the oppression of the African Cubans. What truly angered him about the Cuban situation was not the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors, but the white American's desire to rush to the aid of the Cubans, all the while continuing to lynch their own black neighbors.
This anger launched Mitchell into the middle of the newest battle for the civil rights of African Americans. War with Spain seemed like more of a reality every day as the Navy's investigation began to come to a close. Talk of war lead to talk of troops that grew into a national debate over the use of African American troops. The strong majority of white citizens were against sending black troops because they believed African Americans to be citizen only by name. They were not wrong. Movements to disenfranchise black "citizens," and the staggering amount of times when white authorities punished them for crimes before holding a trial supported the argument against black troops. Mitchell vehemently disagreed that African Americans should be denied the right to fight for their country. He found courage in the fact that many other African Americans felt the same. He took pride in the concept that "No other race, living in the republic under similar conditions would respond in such an emergency, and yet colored troops would rally by the thousands whether called upon by a president, democratic or republican, or by the governor of a state in which they had been ostracized, hounded, murdered, and even denied the right of franchise."
Embroiled in battles with local newspapers such as the Richmond Times to national newspapers like the Washington Post, Mitchell published article after article demanding the reinstatement of African American officers over African American troops. "No officers; no fight!" became the anthem of the Planet over the next three months.
What made this particular issue so incredibly important? Why did Mitchell not just accept the victory? Why would he jeopardize the chance other African American troops had of being deployed? African Americans saw the chance to fight for their country as more than just gaining a right they should already have, but as the best shot they had at convincing white southerners and northerners of their love for America. Every time an African American died in Cuba, his martyrdom would be viewed as the same as that of a white soldier. Every time an African American infantry won a battle, their victory would be viewed as the same as that of a white infantry. However, Mitchell knew that a white commanding officer would receive all the credit for every victory of the black troops. Without a black--and black only--victory, Mitchell knew there was only a feeble hope that the African American situation would change. He published a letter to the editor on the subject that called out the Virginia governor: "All we ask is that the Governor will treat out colored Battalion precisely as he did the white Battalion. That will be and will give entire satisfaction."
One week later, the Planet's headlines read: "Gov. J. Hoge Tyler has decided that the colored troops shall be commanded by their own colored officers." Mitchell and his other supporters across Virginia had won. For a third time that year, Mitchell felt pride in his government, even in his Democrat governor. African American troops from Virginia with black commanding officers joined the Buffalo soldiers in Cuba. Victory after victory, battle after battle, the African American soldiers fought with vigor to fill the shoes that Mitchell spent months creating for them. They did that and more. Mitchell felt pride in his race, commending them in the Planet by declaring, "Our equality was proven at Santiago de Cuba when the Tenth Cavalry faced death with an intrepid bravery which has won the admiration of the civilized world." He, along with many other African Americans, praised God for putting it on the hearts of the white Americans to fight a humanitarian war. At the end of August, Mitchell stated, "Let us thank God the war is over, that our Christian nation may be able to do some humanitarian work at home." Yet, the Richmond Times better expressed what truly would happen once the troops came home, explaining that little would change "and so long there will be friction between the two races—ending always in misfortune to the Negroes." After a few months, Mitchell would have to agree.
The war had united the country, or at least the white country. After almost fifty years of division, the white northerners and southerners came together over the Cuban cause. This only worsened the situation of African Americans. Northerners became more reluctant to get as involved in activism against the South's strict black codes. Mitchell, frustrated to relay the message, published an article that stated, "The Louisiana papers are rejoicing that the constitutional convention has been called and that the Negro will be disenfranchised." On top of this, a problem he thought the people solved during the war resurfaced. A movement continued to remove black commanding officers from troops and replace them with white officers. Even a white lieutenant who hated the concept of mixed-race schools, supported a mixed-race military, as long as whites were in charge. The African American condition would only worsen from here.
Instead of bowing his head and gritting his teeth and bearing the further oppression, even after having lost more ground than he started with at the beginning of the year, John Mitchell, Jr. pressed onward. He provided satire when the Richmond Times showed more prejudice than usual. He advertised for black businesses. He published a tally of the lynching in Virginia every week. He called on his fellow African Americans to do what they can to improve their situation. Mitchell believed this started with changing the white Americans’ image of black Americans. Instead of being perceived as bombastic, wily, and violent, or as docile, childlike, and ignorant, Mitchell hoped to gain a reputation for his race as being respectable, intelligent, and considerate. How would he do this? Mitchell proposed the methods himself: “Let us go to work, and accumulate property, and at the same time continue to be unusually polite and affable to our white and black neighbors.”