Major black-owned enterprises were few and far between in 1900’s Virginia, lending even more respect and admiration to John Mitchell, Jr.’s newspaper The Richmond Planet, one of the most influential black newspapers in Virginian history. The Planet tackled nearly every topic imaginable, locally and nationally, ranging from crime, to business, and to the dealings of the presidents and congressmen. Mitchell and his paper carried an unwavering and critical tone when approaching even the most controversial topics, and his opinion could always be sensed by the criticisms he offered. While no single issue of the Planet carries more weight than the rest, the events that transpired throughout the years did vary in degrees of prominence. Years such as 1909, which held witness to a new presidential regime, major racial conflicts, and black advancements in the Richmond community, demonstrated the newspaper’s influence.

President-elect William Howard Taft held a major presence in the Planet, made evident by the sheer number of articles about him, in which John Mitchell offered as much praise as criticism for his president’s actions. A headline such as “President Accepts Position on Board of Noted Virginia Institution,” signaled praise by Mitchell and following that a general acceptance by the black community. For Taft, showing his support for the black community became an essential act towards asserting himself as a competent leader in an era as progressive as the 1900’s, and the stance did not go unnoticed by the Planet. Time and time again when dealing with racial relations across the nation, headlines such as “Colored Men Appeal – Ask President Taft to Change Policy Toward Negro” told the readers of the Planet that Taft was aware of their situation. On other occasions, Mitchell’s more critical side would appear in articles like “Mr. Taft And The Negro”. Articles like this portrayed Taft as arrogant in his dealings with the black community, even though he is on their side, his attitude and tone is still subjected to critique from Mitchell for “looking down his nose” at the black community. There were other instances where the paper judged Taft as two-faced or cowardly, therein showing he was not venerated, and giving even more credibility to the times when the Planet praised the president.

Nearly rivaling the front page prominence of Taft’s presidential activities was the Georgia Railroad strike, a distant event that nevertheless held a great deal of importance for the black community. The premise for the Georgia Railroad strike began with 10 white workers being fired and replaced by African American workers, with the caveat that the black workers’ wages were significantly lower than the white workers. This became a major issue rather quickly and gained momentum in the pages of the Planet just as fast, since it was a major betrayal from the labor unions against black people. Mitchell put the unions under a great deal of scrutiny. Since earning a decent living was a basic right, Mitchell painted this betrayal as a slap in the face to the black community that could not go unpunished. Many articles like “Negro Firemen Hold Positions – Wages Equal To Those Paid To White Men Ordered” depicted the struggle that these marginalized African Americans had to go through, and just how far they were willing to go in order to retain their basic rights. His opinions of revulsion and disapprovement towards the workers situation, and this strike were made evident in articles like “The Trouble In Georgia – Colored Firemen Wield the Coal Shovel. The Race Issue Uppermost.” Ultimately, the African American workers prevailed in achieving equal pay, but only after an arduous struggle and many new regulations. While it holds true that victory was achieved for the black community in a sense, the mere fact that setbacks in black progression like this were still occurring was demoralizing for the black community.

Throughout 1909, Mitchell expanded the reach of the Planet from Virginia to more prominent national issues. Headlines such as “A Colored Man Wins Championship of England – The Englishmen Enthusiastic” and “Favor Dividing The Nation” illustrated this expansion and also gave leeway for growth in Mitchell’s narrative voice, and provided more nation wide information for the local Virginian readers of the Planet. Mitchell didn’t just expand his horizons for big news pieces like the strike in Georgia, but also managed to broaden his scope of black achievement through articles like “Colored Men Seeking Laurels in High Places” and “A Colored Man At North Pole” where black development was recognized throughout the entirety of the US. Setting aside the great strides in black progress Mitchell brings forth in his expanded Planet, there was still a great deal of national upset in the black community that became noticeable through articles like “Those horrible Illinois Lynchings.” Also, factored into his articles addressing the country as a whole, and not just Virginia, are a great deal of politically based articles such as “Republicans Carry Penna – Entire State Ticket Elected by Good Margins” where Mitchell shows readers his political inclinations and his thoughts on the different candidates for positions in Senate and Congress.

Despite the periodic focus on national and international matters, Mitchell also focused a sizeable portion of the Planet on events in Richmond, whether it be news about the Knights of Pythias in articles like “Pythian Temple Tax Abolished” or developments in business and politics. An article, “Two Views of Camp John Mitchel Junior,” about fairs set up by the Knights, told of attempts to bring white and black communities together. These attempts at creating more unified communities, coupled with local black businesses flourishing, and black members of the community speaking out against discriminatory laws in the Richmond community and workplaces began to make Mitchell hold the dealings of Richmond to a certain standard. When writing on matters such as those of Congress or laws being passed in other states, Mitchell approached them from a more critical perspective, letting less of his emotions and opinions dictate the direction of the articles. But when writing about the community he personally was involved in – which might take his words as guidance rather than commentary – his stances on subjects involving race or politics were far clearer. Examples of articles like this would be the aforementioned “President Accepts Position on Board of Noted Virginia Institution,” where it is apparent that Mitchell not only approves of what the head of the US government is doing for Richmond, but for the education of the black community as well.

In the year 1909, there is a palpable diversity in the things that John Mitchell Jr. chooses to write about, shown by having issues containing articles like “Denies Graft In Panama – President Obaldia Defends William Cromwell” and “Taft To Be Made Mason On Sight” on the same page. This assortment of different themes and articles coupled with news about local issues such as “Nearly Half Million Dollars Needed” where Mitchell talks about funding for new infrastructure needed in Richmond, creates a highly varied Planet unlike any of the years before it. Through the articles of this year, it can be observed how the progression of the country as a whole that led Mitchell towards broadening his view beyond Richmond to the presidency and more, yet still focusing on and tying it back to the deep-seated issues in Richmond that still needed to be addressed by the Planet.

Alan Banuchi