1899

In the year prior to the turn of the century, Richmond was driven by hopes for racial progression. Black people in Richmond fought for equality with a vigor stemming in part from the literary motivation they received on a weekly basis from their community’s newspaper, the Richmond Planet. Richmond’s black population had a hunger for equality that can be seen through every issue of 1899’s paper. In many ways, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s took its bearings from the last years of the 1890s, with leaders like John Mitchell, Jr. taking the helm as the voice of progress. Progress requires foresight, and Mitchell saw a future for the black community so vividly that he dedicated his life to ensuring he could motivate and his inform his peers as best he could with regards to an end goal of racial equality. Mitchell pointed out double standards, outlined social challenges, and made certain every white crime was scrutinized and juxtaposed with how a black person would be treated if in the same situation.

Momentum is essential to considering how black people continued to progress after slipping back in the period after Reconstruction. White people in the South were attempting to reclaim the unchallenged control they had become accustomed to during the era of slavery.  Mitchell and his paper fought back in every way they could.  The most popular headline for the year was “White Man’s Crime.” In these articles—of which there are many—Mitchell made a point of identifying and scrutinizing white people for their misdoings, and assured that they are being held are held accountable to the same extent that a black person would be. Herein lies one of the many differences between the Planet and a white newspaper like the Richmond Daily Dispatch, who—if even choosing it as subject matter—would dedicate much less time on ensuring that an event like this was noticed. Additionally, Mitchell’s fierce, determined tone was consistent throughout the year, making it obvious that he was hungry for the equality he could foresee.

Mitchell told of a white father who abused his children in “White Man’s Crime.” Mitchell’s tone was artful and unrevealing, setting the scene for the double standard while remaining subtle about his agenda. He quickly noted that when the man was arrested, he “did not express any surprise, but wanted to know if the county would pay him for the time lost while in jail,” revealing through an impartial, journalistic lens the entitlement white people felt when being faced with the criminal justice system. Mitchell described the place the crime took place as “one of the quietest and most orderly places in Virginia” and added that the arrest “stirred the citizens of the place as they have never been aroused before,” showing that even the most esteemed of white neighborhoods can be just as turbulent as white people lead the population to believe the black neighborhoods are. Mitchell casually introduces the irony without explicitly saying why the matter is so important.

Mitchell did not always write in this subtle style. Sometimes he showed his hand and told the community what and why they should feel about an event. For example, in an article from the same July issue, Mitchell spoke of an event in which two black miners were shot in the back following some quarreling in the mines. Here, Mitchell called attention to the double standard that the law enforcement held against black people. “If colored men had shot down white men in this cowardly manner, all of the machinery of the state would have been put to work to apprehend the cowardly murderers,” says Mitchell. He urges a strong stand against this unfairness, saying “colored men have no protection whatever, and self-reliance must be their main dependence.” He sarcastically observed that “it is unfortunate indeed that these white men were not punished, not by the officers of the law, but by the colored miners themselves.” Mitchell condemns with passion and vigor in the latter article just as he carefully dissected the irony and double standards in the former.

Mitchell is just as articulate when dealing with great victories for black progress. In a monumental June article, Mitchell wrote of the first occurrence of white people being arrested for lynching a black man in Virginian history. His tone was celebratory, but impatient. Mitchell knows this should have happened long ago, and does not have time to get caught up in the belated triumph. He calls it a “great victory for law and order” and compliments the attorney for his “masterly” speech, but—although it is a front-page story due to importance—uses less than 10 lines to recapture the entire ordeal. In other victories, such as a factory being opened to supply jobs to black women, Mitchell uses language akin to modern-day journalism: strictly the facts, organized to be entertaining, without opinion. The same is true for an article telling of how a black man who had been refused service at an ice cream shop gets the ice cream shop owner arrested.

On the front-page of an issue from September, Mitchell used the majority of the page to illustrate how the Constitution failed to enforce justice for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Mitchell restated the entire first section of the 14th amendment, drawing emphasis to how no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty or property,” and how every citizen is entitled to “Equal Protection of the Law.” He drove his point with the issue’s massive headline, “No Justice in Virginia,” and continued to offer two contrasting applications of Virginian laws to show how “the law is one-eyed.” In the first example, placed right under the reiteration of the Constitution, Mitchell told of a black man that was sentenced to hang for petty robbery. Right next to this article, Mitchell told of a white man who was fined just $10 for “one of the most cold blooded assassinations in the history of [the area].” Both events took place within the last two months, making them especially pertinent to his outrage. Mitchell also spoke of failures of the government to uphold this constitutional right in “Colored Children Excluded,” where a woman who tries to get her children, and “all children, irrespective of color, to the public schools,” but is denied because of the “separate but equal” doctrine.

In addition to providing a keen eye for misdoings against the black race, Mitchell quickly reported on social progress for other sections of mistreated Americans, such as women. He reports of a woman who “declined to receive an engagement ring from her fiancé,” and instead opted to receive $100 dollars which she used to purchase “a life membership in the Woman’s Suffrage society.” In a follow-up to the aforementioned shirt factory article about the plant that was designed to give jobs to black women, Mitchell gave a front-page exposé to ensuring that all knew about the factory’s shortcomings. “[Black] girls find that they cannot win there,” wrote Mitchell.

Above all, Mitchell sought justice. Every time a black person faced adversity, Mitchell was there to back them up. Despite a cruel letter to the editor smiting Mitchell for his article, Mitchell doubled down against a Virginian judge in “Judge McSherry’s Heartlessness.” Throughout the article, Mitchell uses hard-hitting language to tear apart Judge McSherry—who had ordered an innocent black man to death—calling him “heartless,” stating that “it was a question of mercy and humanity,” and finishing with “I hold [the governor] and McSherry responsible for the death of an innocent man. This will be heralded throughout the United States.” In another article, Mitchell called out a secretary for failing to appoint the colored officer the governor had requested, adding “if we are to have a colored regiment, let us have a [black] colonel commanding it or let us abandon the farce of doing full justice.” In September of that year, Mitchell calls out a sheriff for failing to arrest a white man for rape, powerfully ending the article with, “if colored men deserve the stake, white men deserve the stake. The basis of equality should not be disturbed either in the courts of justice or in the arena of honor.” In yet another example, Mitchell displays the failures of both a Virginian mayor and the governor with regards to the lynching of a young black boy, directly addressing the mayor with, “What will your answer be? Law or anarchy? Meet the issue squarely, Mayor Simpson, meet the issue squarely. Lynch-law must go!” Mitchell was a voice for his people, and he had their backs.

John Mitchell spoke of events with a wide range of styles, sometimes with deep emotion, and other times with straightforward reiteration of the facts. By showing the double standard to which black people were held, Mitchell made a convincing argument to the black Richmond community that emphasized why they should not settle for the way things currently were. He guided their emotions, and showed them exactly who was to blame. Mitchell’s delicate—albeit often impassioned—accounts of such events were essential for ensuring the community was ready and excited to progress in the face of a new wave of heavy pushback.

Elias Sturim