Mitchell was born on July 11, 1863, at Laburnum, an estate located then in Henrico County and later in the city of Richmond. He was the son of John Mitchell and Rebecca Mitchell, enslaved servants of James Lyons, a lawyer, legislator, member of the Convention of 1850–1851, and at the time of Mitchell’s birth a member of the House of Representatives of the Confederate States of America. After Mitchell and his family members were emancipated at the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865) they remained at Laburnum. At about age ten Mitchell began work as Lyons’s carriage boy. Despite his disdain for slavery Mitchell often boasted later in his life that he was born at Laburnum as a way of establishing his credentials with white Richmonders.
Taught how to read by his mother, Mitchell attended the private school of Baptist minister Anthony Binga early in the 1870s before attending Navy Hill School, one of the city’s new public schools. From 1876 to 1881 he studied at the Richmond Colored Normal School, a high school that specialized in training African American teachers. Mitchell graduated in 1881 as the valedictorian of his class and received a special award for his drawing of a map of Virginia. He began teaching at Fredericksburg Colored School with Marietta Chiles, also a graduate of Richmond Colored Normal School, who became a close lifelong friend. Mitchell returned to Richmond to teach at the Valley School in 1883, but in 1884 the newly appointed Democratic school board fired him and ten other African American teachers.
Mitchell had begun writing for the New York Globe in September 1883 and thereafter focused on journalism. In December 1884 at age twenty-one he became editor of the weekly Richmond Planet. Three years earlier Frederick Douglass had prophesied of Mitchell that “I have no fear but that young Mitchell will make his way in the world and be a credit to our race.”
Founded in 1883, the Richmond Planet was still in its infancy when Mitchell assumed control. In the early years he struggled financially as he edited and published the paper out of his room in a boarding house. The paper soon achieved greater success, and Mitchell purchased an electric printing press in 1888 and moved the paper’s headquarters to Swan Tavern on Broad Street, where the Library of Virginia stands today. The Richmond Planet gained national prominence as a firm advocate of racial justice and civil rights. He attracted the attention of national figures such as Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, with Douglass telling Mitchell in 1891, “You have indeed nationalized yourself.” Mitchell became president of the Afro-American Press Association in 1890, serving until September 1894. At its annual meeting held in Richmond that year, the governor declined to make an address after Mitchell and the association refused to repudiate Wells’s antilynching crusade.
The Richmond Planet became noted in particular for Mitchell’s antilynching efforts, which included extensive coverage of lynching cases, lists of lynching victims, and graphic images of lynchings. In 1897 the editor of the Richmond Reformer praised Mitchell, stating that “it is a fact known of men that our contemporary editor, Mr. Jno. Mitchell, Jr., has done more in the way of newspaper work in exposition and denunciation of lynching through the Planet than any other newspaper editor.”Moreover, Mitchell’s efforts as a civil rights activist extended beyond newspaper editorials. He prevented several lynchings, interceded on the behalf of unjustly convicted African Americans by arranging legal counsel, appealed to government officials, and raised funds. “Lynching is a barbarous practice that has been out-lawed by civilized nations. It must go!” Mitchell wrote in the February 3, 1894, issue of the Planet, a sentiment he frequently repeated throughout his career.
An early example of his personal dedication can be seen in his 1889 intercession on the behalf of Simon Walker, a fifteen-year-old African American boy accused of raping a young white woman. According to the Richmond Planet, Mitchell “thought it would be a shame upon the State, a disgrace to the commonwealth to allow a child of that age to hang,” which he believed amounted to a legal lynching. As Walker’s execution date neared, Mitchell appealed to Governor Fitzhugh Lee for a stay of execution. Because the governor was out of town, Mitchell had to travel by train across Virginia to obtain his signature. After successfully obtaining a thirty-day stay of execution, Mitchell sought legal counsel for Walker and personally agreed to pay his legal fees. When Walker’s stay of execution came to an end, Mitchell sought another delay, but Lee was out of town again. Unable to obtain Lee’s signature until the evening before Walker was to be executed, Mitchell raced with a borrowed horse and carriage through mud and rain from Richmond to the Chesterfield County courthouse during the night and dramatically delivered the papers authorizing another stay of execution. Mitchell continued his campaign to save the teenager, raising funds and circulating petitions that eventually persuaded the governor to commute Walker’s death sentence to twenty years in prison.
Mitchell also sought to prevent lynchings by urging African Americans to arm themselves in self-defense. “The best remedy for a lyncher or a cursed midnight rider,” he once wrote, “is a 16 shot Winchester rifle in the hands of a dead shot Negro who has nerve enough to pull the trigger.” Famously, Mitchell traveled to Charlotte County toting two pistols after receiving death threats for his coverage of a lynching there. He became notorious for pushing the boundaries of racist society through actions and statements such as these, notable not only for his bold defiance but also for his expressions of racial pride. In the Planet, Mitchell argued, “when the Negro learns to love and admire the Negro, other races will learn to love and admire us.” According to the Indianapolis Freeman, “no stronger race man is known amongst us” than Mitchell.
Mitchell as a Politician
While Mitchell encouraged African Americans to defend themselves against the failures of the justice system, he also worked within the system to promote change by running for political office. In 1888 he won election as a Republican to the Richmond common council and two years later to the board of aldermen. He served until 1896, by which time gerrymandering and population shifts had made it almost impossible for any African American to win a majority vote in any portion of the city. Mitchell was an adept and astute politician. Although he fought relentlessly to improve conditions for black Richmonders, he knew how to choose his battles. In 1891 he secured $20,000 for the construction of new African American schools and three years later helped persuade the city to provide enough funds to construct an armory for the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers, a black militia regiment, in Jackson Ward. In 1893 he voted with white council members to allot money for the reburial of Jefferson Davis at Hollywood Cemetery.
Mitchell ran for city council again in 1900, but rigged ballots and election fraud led to the defeat of the African American candidates. They challenged the results, but the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the council had jurisdiction in contested elections and none of the Republicans were seated. At the same time, Virginians voted to call a constitutional convention, which two years later approved a new state constitution that disfranchised most African American voters. Mitchell did not run for political office again until 1921, when he ran for governor on the “Lily Black” Republican ticket after the Republican State Convention excluded most African American delegates and nominated a slate of all-white candidates for statewide office. Mitchell scarcely campaigned at all and received only 5,036 votes out of more than 210,000 cast.
Jim Crow and the Richmond Streetcar Boycott
Discouraged by the disfranchisement of most African American voters in 1902, Mitchell continued to fight for justice and equality both as a journalist and an activist. In particular, he took on Jim Crow segregation, which rapidly increased its hold on Richmond early in the 1900s. Mitchell had personally protested Jim Crow laws in his many travels. He disregarded Jim Crow signs on a train traveling through Kentucky and occupied a white sleeper car on a train through Georgia. When Virginia authorized transit companies to begin segregating streetcars in 1904, Mitchell took his protests further and organized a boycott of the streetcars, much like the famous Montgomery bus boycott fifty years later.
Beginning in April 1904, immediately following the Virginia Passenger and Power Company’s announcement that it would implement segregation on Richmond streetcars, Mitchell, along with civil rights activist and entrepreneur Maggie Lena Walker, called for African Americans to “stay off the street-cars,” launching a two-year boycott of Richmond’s streetcar system. In the Richmond Planet, Mitchell explained, “The ‘Jim Crow’ street-car service for Richmond is an innovation to which the progressive, independent colored people of this city will hardly care to submit. Walking is good now,—let us walk.” On another occasion he wrote, “If the entire colored population or at least ninety percent of it would agree to make the sacrifice and walk for a year, the agony produced on the white man’s nerve centre, which is his pocket, would tend to cause an amelioration of our condition.”
Even though the Virginia Passenger and Power Company went out of business later in 1904 the boycott was unsuccessful. In 1906 the General Assembly passed a law that mandated segregation on public transportation. The boycott dwindled out in 1906, but Mitchell nonetheless continued to abstain from riding segregated streetcars.
The Mechanics Savings Bank and Later Years
Mitchell remained dedicated to the Richmond Planet and its causes, but he began to focus more on business endeavors in the wake of disfranchisement and the legal imposition of racial segregation. In the 1880s he had joined the Grand United Order of True Reformers, a beneficial association established by William Washington Browne to provide life insurance for African Americans. After Browne opened the True Reformers’ bank in 1889, Mitchell sat on its board of directors, serving for five years. In 1892 Mitchell joined the Knights of Pythias, an African American secret fraternal order, and became grand chancellor of the Virginia Pythians in 1894.
He traveled throughout the state, recruiting members and establishing lodges. He refined the insurance program offered by Virginia’s Grand Lodge and the organization’s success led to his establishment of the Mechanics Savings Bank, for which he received a charter in 1901. As its president, Mitchell became a member of the predominately white American Bankers Association and attended its annual meetings, usually the only African American present. He addressed the bankers at the September 1904 meeting, reminding them that white southerners had blocked African American political involvement, but commending the growing relationships between African American professionals and white businessmen. While Mitchell continued the Planet‘s quest for racial justice, his fighting spirit was notably diminished. In 1907 Booker T. Washington, whose accommodationist strategies Mitchell had not previously favored, described Mitchell as one of “the sane and sensible business men of our race who are doing much to win for us as a race the respect of our white neighbors.”
From the late 1910s through the early 1920s, Mitchell became noted for his “Touring Travels,” a column in the Planet dedicated to recounting the adventures he had in his Stanley Steamer automobile. While this reflects a shift away from political activism in many respects, it was Mitchell’s Stanley Steamer that garnered him the most negative government attention. In 1921 he gave Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, who was under significant FBI scrutiny, a tour of Richmond in the automobile. Mitchell himself had been under FBI surveillance since 1920. Commenting later on the subject, Mitchell stated, “persecuting Negro leaders under the guise of prosecuting them is becoming a popular past time.” It is possible that the government scrutiny contributed to the collapse of the Mechanics Savings Bank in 1922.
Beginning in 1919, Mitchell and his bank suffered a series of economic setbacks as the post–World War I economy took a downward turn. Furthermore, he soon found himself in conflict with white bank regulators. His troubled relationship with the regulators on top of his financial problems caused the Mechanics Savings Bank to close in the summer of 1922. Accused of misusing bank money, Mitchell was indicted on charges of fraud and theft in December and in April 1923 was sentenced to three years in prison. Released on bail he fought to have his conviction overturned. On March 19, 1925, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in Mitchell’s favor, and the state dropped the charges against him. Mitchell was left in financial ruin with his home, the Planet headquarters, and other properties in the hands of the bank’s receivers. Most were sold off, although he was allowed to reside in his home for the remainder of his life.
Mitchell never married and lived the latter part of his life with a nephew. Despite the triumphs and successes of his life, Mitchell died in poverty at his Richmond home on December 3, 1929. Family tradition describes Mitchell as ready to meet death while wearing his Knights of Pythias uniform. “Life’s great adventure is over,” began the Richmond Planet‘s editorial tribute by one of Mitchell’s colleagues. “It rained and the winds blew as the spirit of the strong man which had weathered innumerable storms ‘drifted out into that dark and unknown sea which rolls around all the world.’ His great intellect, his indomitable will, his unconquerable spirit and matchless courage rest at last with the ashes of this restless man … ‘Tis Richmond, but living Richmond no more.” Although Mitchell had established Woodland Cemetery in 1917, he was buried next to his mother in Evergreen Cemetery.