African American convicts huddle together for warm as night comes on, many of them naked to the waist. No food warms their bellies since two days have passed since the last “meal” consisting of food barely fit for animals. They await the morning whereupon guards wake and herd them back into the dangerous mines where they labor, whipped for the slightest misstep or sign of fatigue. In the winter, since they possessed no shoes, they make this journey to the mines every morning barefoot risking frost bite, little to the concern of their overseers.

Such a scene describes life for African American convicts placed in Georgian and Floridian convict camps in 1901. Meanwhile in Virginia, legislators of the Virginia Constitutional Convention meet to ensure the suppression of black suffrage. In such a world, John Mitchell Jr., as editor of the Richmond Planet, faces a dilemma. As someone responsible for reporting news, he cannot simply ignore these events, but people look to the Planet to provide hope in the midst of such tribulations. Consequently, Mitchell tries to temper optimism with an honest reporting of facts for the African American people. This difficult balance shapes everything in the Planet.

From the beginning of Virginia Constitutional Convention saga, John Mitchell Jr. assumed a pessimistically sarcastic tone. For example, a January article entitled “The Issue in Congress” remarked that “the one gratifying feature of the debate was the ringing speech made by Congressman Gro. H. White, the lone Afro-American representative upon the floor of congress. There is something touchingly pathetic in his speech of defiance.” Even John Mitchell sees the futility in Congressman White’s speech, since no change will result. Since, black Americans possessed virtually no political representation, Mitchell possessed no confidence that justice would prevail in the case of institutions like the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Following the nomination of the members of the Constitutional Convention in March, John Mitchell wrote, “When men who desire to be elected to the constitutional convention are forced to stand on the street-corners and yell, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger!” it becomes as once a foregone conclusion that gentlemen of learning and respectability will be found sadly wanting when the votes are counted after the ballots are cast. For our part, we are not taking enough interest in the affair to care what the Negro-haters do.” Clearly, Mitchell believed there remained little chance that circumstances would turn for the better and advised his people to not even devote attention to such a futile enterprise.

As events unfurled, Mitchell continued to display his impatience and mockery of the Constitutional Convention. Indeed, even the title of an article published in July, “The Convention Still Here,” mirrors the attitude of growing frustration within Mitchell and the black community at large. “The Constitutional Convention is as yet in session presumably although it has adjourned for one week,” he remarked. He challenged the intelligence of the members of the Constitutional Convention, for “the Committee on Suffrage has had a problem to solve which would not only tend to embarrass but would practically paralyze any right-thinking man, who reads the provisions of the act of Congress, admitting Virginia into the union.” Mitchell claims that the members of the Constitutional Convention claiming they lack basic political awareness and are not qualified to embark in such an endeavor as serving an enterprise like the Virginia

Constitutional Convention.

The opening sentences of an August article, entitled “The Negro As A Hobby” provides a glimpse into the mind of the people of Virginia: “The Constitutional Convention of Virginia seems now to be a veritable white elephant on the hands of the people of Virginia.” Indeed, many in Virginia viewed the Constitutional Conventional solely as a source of embarrassment. “How can Christian legislators or atheistic ones with honorable intentions disregard the amendments, which they as citizens are bound to support?” Mitchell asked. “This is the question of questions and will be a source of embarrassment in Alabama as much so in Virginia.” Mitchell remarked bitterly that the Constitutional Convention posed no real threat to African Americans, since legislators could not take away what African Americans already did not possess. “We have never seen the need of any particular uneasiness on the part of our people relative to the cutting off our right to vote. That right is already flagrantly denied us, and we are as unceremoniously disfranchised in Virginia, as though we were a blanket Indian upon a reservation in Indian territory. It is the white man who will be most injured when the campaign is ended, and the list of casualties reported at the headquarters of the people.

Several hundred miles to the south of Richmond, South Carolina and Florida witnessed a very different and more tangible form of injustice. Authorities were selling the labor of African American convicts to local farms and coal mines, allowing the owners of these enterprises to treat the convicts as they wished. This practice led to a horrific abuse of these black convicts as detailed in several articles in the Planet. “I could tell of women who have been starved” one read. “of women who have been suspended by wrists and flogged nearly to death because they would not submit to the lust of worse than brutal guards, etc, etc.” Indeed, “the condition of the convicts was so deplorable that it ‘could not be presented in language.’” Moreover, not only adult men and women fell victim to such heinous treatment. The Planet revealed “there is another feature connected with this convict leasing, in fact it is found all over the South, it is the manner of obtaining children and keeping them in these convict stockades.” Indeed, even white women speoke out against the situation facing these convicts dubbed “The New Slavery” Here, Mitchell found a cause worthy of taking a stand; African Americans across the country must work endlessly to halt this new evil. Consequently, he implored “How long must we read of men being mutilated and then hung or shot to death? How long must we read of men being burned at the stake, and we read of each account often now—how long, oh how long? How long must we read about the ‘new slavery’ the prison pens, and stockades, and do nothing? How long shall we be silent? How long, oh Lord! How long?”. While black people could not gain much from fighting the Constitutional Convention, surely combatting the “new slavery” repaid all the time and energy it consumed.

All in all, Mitchell chooses his battles wisely, remaining optimistic where needed, and abrasive when necessary. Throughout these two parallel narratives of injustice, Mitchell displayed the discernment needed to effectively and efficiently lead the black community. In the case of the Virginia Constitutional Convention, the Planet reported its happenings with impatience eager to move on to something worthy of its effort. Once the state of the convict camps in Georgia and Florida came to attention, on the other hand, energy pours into this story to eradicate the cruelty. Mitchell insightfully devotes time to a cause where change can result as opposed to fighting an utterly futile battle against the Constitutional Convention. Since African Americans cannot vote, the Constitutional Convention only solidifies this suppression. Instead, Mitchell and the Planet aimed at rectifying a situation within their grasp rather than wasting time fighting a battle they already lost. 

Nate Lyell