The Richmond Planet
This curation, transcription, and interpretation of the Richmond Planet opens a window into fundamental issues of race, equity, justice, violence, and power that still stir the nation today.
Thirteen formerly enslaved men formed the Richmond Planet in Virginia’s capital city in 1882. Two years later, John R. Mitchell, Jr., 21 years old, assumed the editorship of the paper. He would lead the Planet for the next 45 years.
Mitchell, born in the last days of slavery and coming of age in the years after Reconstruction, was bold and defiant. The masthead of the paper—a strong black arm wielding lightning—conveyed the admiring comments of one observer that the Planet dared “to hurl the thunderbolts of truth into the ranks of the wicked.”
The Richmond Planet attacked the violence and injustice of lynching, unfair courts, and brutal prison systems. The paper fought against the imposition of segregation and voting restrictions. Along the way, the Planet took on the most powerful people in Virginia; each week, a copy of the paper appeared on the doorsteps of the Governor’s Mansion and the leading white newspaper in the city.
Alongside its fearless defense of black rights, the Planet conveyed positive news and encouraging advice. The paper’s pages told of church meetings, self-help organizations, efforts at reform, and accomplishments of African Americans in their schools and professions.
The years presented in Black Virginia show the Planet at the height of its influence. Mitchell’s crusade for justice in a case in the 1890s won national attention. The paper fought, among many other causes, for the right of black Americans to enlist in the Spanish American War in 1898, against Virginia’s constitutional convention of 1901-2, in defiance of the segregation of Richmond’s street cars in 1904, and in opposition to the unjust prosecution of African American soldiers in Texas in 1906.
John Mitchell, Jr. wrote and printed much of what appeared in the Richmond Planet. His personal political and business passions became those of the paper, whether embodied in the Republican party he joined, the Baptist church he attended, the fraternal order of the Knights of Pythias he led, or the Mechanics Savings Bank he founded. Mitchell stood at the center of one struggle after another as he tried to find a path forward in troubling times.
Sixteen students at the University of Richmond in the fall of 2017 worked to unlock the riches of the Richmond Planet, one of the most important African American newspapers in the United States. Each student read a year of the paper on the Virginia Chronicle website and then selected, transcribed, summarized, and tagged the most important and revealing articles of that year. They then conveyed the dominant issues of each year in interpretive essays.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a sustained assault on the rights, welfare, and safety of African Americans, especially those who lived where slavery had been most entrenched. John L. Mitchell, Jr., the editor of the Planet, fought against that assault for year after year.
The pages of the Planet reveal the challenges confronting the black community in Richmond, in Virginia, in the South, and in the nation as a whole. The paper also documents the ways that black Americans gathered strength among themselves in churches, organizations, businesses, and political efforts, the ways they resisted violence and systematic disfranchisement and segregation, and the ways they fostered self-reliance and self-respect.
Chris Kemp of the Boatwright Library at the University built the website, with design by Nathaniel Ayers of the library’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Edward L. Ayers, president emeritus at the University and Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities, taught the course, Touching the Past.
The historical work in Black Virginia was done by these students: