John Mitchell, Jr.: The Public Life
John Mitchell, Jr., led a very active public life. As editor of the Planet his was a loud voice for or against a variety of causes and concerns, but there was far more to his public activities than his newspaper work. While the details of his private life were never revealed in the paper, his civic career was well documented. Mitchell was a community activist and politician, a leader of the Knights of Pythias, President of the National Afro-American Press Association, and Founder and President of a commercial bank.
Mitchell used his stature as a, "crusading newspaper editor" to propel himself into a political career. In the spring of 1892, at the age of 28, he was elected to Richmond's Board of Aldermen from Jackson Ward, and he was re-elected in 1894. In perhaps his most grandiose move Mitchell ran for Governor in 1921. As a part of a so-called "Lily Black" Republican ticket (an all African-American Republican party off-shoot) he ran an unsuccessful and controversial campaign for the highest office in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Other Black newspapers in Virginia (including the Journal and Guide of Norfolk) opposed his campaign because they felt it would split the Black vote. Mitchell was to lose the race, and there are those who claim that it came to haunt him the next year.
As a member of the Knights of Pythias, Mitchell rose to the title of Grand Worthy Counsellor, and was the state's leader of this semi-secret society into the 1920's.
The National Afro-American Press Association elected Mitchell to consecutive Presidential terms in the early 1890's. There he led fellow newspaper editors in an organized outcry against "Southern outrages", and lynchings, and in their endorsement of the work of Ida B. Wells. He foresaw the decline of weekly newspapers and advocated the founding of daily newspapers owned by African-Americans, but written with a larger community in mind:
[A daily run] as any other such journal is run pandering to no class, yielding obedience to no clique, but declaring for human rights and the enunciation of these principles, which will make the world our field, and man-kind our brothers. (Sept. 15, 1894)
Obviously, not everything Mitchell touched turned to gold. In his later years his editorials became less strident, his failed bid for the Governor's House weighed upon him, and by the mid-1920's he found himself in the midst of a crisis that would leave him in ruin.
Of all his endeavors Mitchell's Mechanics Savings Bank was the most ambitious. As founder and President of the institution he strove to make it the place Richmond's African-Americans saved their money and did their banking, but in the summer of 1922 the bank was in crisis.
Amidst controversy Mitchell was accused of misuing tens of thousands of dollars of the bank's funds. In a fight that was to go to the State Supreme Court, Mitchell countered the charges and accused the State's establishment of retaliating against him for his run at the Governorship the previous year. The bank was closed in 1922.
Mitchell's legal battle was to drag on for over a year. Responding to his public pleas for solidarity, the community increased savings entrusted to Mechanics Savings Bank and contributed to a John Mitchell, Jr., Defense Fund. While his conviction was ultimately set aside and he was cleared of all charges, the Mechanics Savings Bank went into receivership in 1923. The bank was rechartered by the State in July of 1924. Mitchell's idea of an African-American owned bank was finally lost.
Mitchell would not recover from this blow. His savings and assets were all but stripped away. While he retained the newspaper and his role as editor, the voice and power of the "Strong Arm" was clearly weakened. He remained editor of the Richmond Planet until 1929, when fittingly he collapsed in the office of his beloved paper, and died at his home December 3, 1929.
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