1906

Throughout 1906, Jim Crow Street Car laws, the Brownsville affair, and the success of the Mechanics Savings Bank helped and hindered the advancement of the black people of Richmond and of the nation. Through articles and advertisements, the tone and words of John Mitchell Jr. revealed that, at times, he was clearly angry, using harsh, extreme language or sarcasm. At other times he was very encouraging, almost exaggerating the success of the black community. Over the course of the year, a shift showed that Mitchell began to focus on what the black community could do, rather than what they could not control. Everything he did and encouraged others to do was to advance the community, despite the double standards or injustice that he could have been angry about. To gain respectability and self-respect for black people throughout Richmond, Mitchell focused on temperance as a powerful force.

Temperance became a popular movement throughout the world, and the movement continued until the national prohibition triumphed in the 1920s. The temperance movement was one that affected many aspects of life because the consumption of alcohol was diverse in location, reason, and people affected. Many impacts of alcohol were negative and allowed people to look down on drinkers through these different aspects, sometimes unfairly, as the white community looked for any reason to exclude black people. The Planet wrote articles about employment and alcohol, economics and alcohol, morals and alcohol, health and alcohol, and religion and alcohol to show the ways that the black community could take advantage of the opportunity to gain respectability.

Mitchell was angry about so much in his time as editor of the Planet, made clear through the choices he made in publishing and portraying his opinions of the matter at hand. He put the  injustice towards the black community in the spotlight of the issues. However, during the shift seen in 1906 which led Mitchell to focus on what the black community could do rather than what they could not do, Mitchell did not choose to highlight the temperance movement as a way to further serve injustice to the black community. Instead, he viewed temperance as an opportunity to get ahead of the discrimination and judgment. Through temperance, the black community took away the validity of the white people’s condescending opinions.

In the Planet, typically around the business and advertisements sections, many articles encouraged temperance from an employer’s perspective. These articles warned that employers and insurers were cracking down on drinking, claiming that workers who drink were a liability. An article entitled “Drinkers Take Heed,” detailed how the Pennsylvania Railroad Company workers are placed in  “positions of trust” to stay away from not only alcohol, but any type of temptation. Insurance companies mentioned in “Insurance and Alcohol” refused to cover even moderate drinkers, because they, once insured, may “throw those restraining principles overboard and adopt more self indulgent habits.” Mitchell argues that alcohol is not worth the risk of unemployment. Before the shift in Mitchell’s attitude towards the ability of the black community, he could have thought of this as just one more barrier instituted to prevent black advancement. Instead, he published articles encouraging temperance as a means to gain work.

The Planet also encouraged temperance as a means of black advancement through economics. Throughout 1906, reports detail the expenses of alcohol, specifically in the total United States, Germany, and New York. In the United States, the increase in consumption of alcohol showed that  the “national drink bill was so great for alcoholic beverages alone that it would have paid the ordinary expenditures of the government.” The Planet argues that alcohol is the reason the “masses are poor” in New York City. By contrast, an article about Iceland’s total abstinence claims that there is “not one drop of alcoholic liquor” and then also “not an illiterate on the island.” For Mitchell, allowing this contrast to be shown encouraged the black community to be aware of what temperance could do and the benefits of it. He continued to give examples of ways that temperance could be used as a force of advancement and education, specifically in Iceland. 

The Planet publishes numerous professional opinions about the effect that alcohol has on the body to show that alcohol is not worth losing respectability. In one June article, a king’s physician deems “alcohol a poison.” The doctor said he “could find not one word of commendation for the use of alcohol” and that alcohol is  “inconsistent with fine work.” Mitchell knows that if the black community stops drinking, the white people will have one less excuse to exclude them or to claim that they are “inconsistent with fine work.” The use of a king’s physician as a source is very effective because a king and his professionals are at the highest tier of respectability. For John Mitchell, the use of this source shows his efforts to bring the black community to that level. Here, he does not fight the white authority, but instead strives to gain the same respectability.

In a few more articles relating temperance to health, statistics of longevity for abstainers versus drinkers demonstrate the “immense advantage of total abstinence in view of good health and long life.” One article told a story of a depressed man who blames his failures on alcohol, recalling a low point when he was passed out in the streets. The person who found him claimed that “I can hardly mention an industry in this country which was not affected by that man’s insobriety,” meaning everything he had was tattered or unusable, except alcohol. This drastically displayed the idea that if someone chooses alcohol, that person is sacrificing every other industry in the country, slowing advancement. Mitchell shows alcohol as something that will hinder the black community, while abstaining will lead to longevity.

An advertisement for temperance visually portrays drinkers as diseased, impoverished, and criminal. To associate drinkers with diseased, impoverished, or criminal people shows how negatively “respectable” people view drinkers. This exaggeration again could have been seen as an injustice in Mitchell’s eyes, but he uses it to further encourage abstaining.  Another advertisement offers a woman’s help to cure alcoholism because of the way she was affected by her husband. To make a personal advertisement from a wife about her husband proves the everlasting impacts that alcohol has on the people surrounding the drinker, hopefully swaying people away from alcohol in order to save their family. In a short article with a big header, Pope Pius claims “the spiritual life is not fostered by indulgence in strong spirits.” Again, Mitchell uses white authority to encourage the black community to gain respectability. He could resist any white authority, but his focus on what black people could do compels him to use the authority as a force of encouragement.   

To hear John Mitchell’s tone was to understand the importance of self-advancement and improvement. Mitchell could have portrayed the use of temperance as a double standard and just another way that black people had to go above and beyond in their community. He could have been outraged that a personal decision, like drinking, could be the difference in black people getting a job or not. Yet he chose to view the situation as a means for black people to gain respect, giving the white people reasons to integrate them into the community.

Emma Roberts