In Season 3, Episode 3, of Not Even Past, host Brendan Wolfe admires the African American newspaperman John Mitchell Jr. Known as the Fighting Editor, Mitchell was willing to strap on a pair of Smith & Wesson revolvers and risk his own death in the fight against lynching. His life ended on a sad note, though, and today he is largely forgotten—or he might have been if not for Kimberly Wilson. A Mitchell relative living in Richmond, she tells Wolfe and producer Miranda Bennett how she keeps his memory alive.
Click below to read a transcript of the show.
IMAGE: This portrait of John Mitchell Jr. appeared in The Afro-American Press, and Its Editors, by I. Garland Penn, published in 1891. (University of Virginia Library)
Brendan Wolfe: They called him the Fighting Editor. And it’s easy to see why.
In 1886 John Mitchell Jr. had owned the Richmond Planet newspaper for just two years. It was a black paper that unabashedly promoted civil rights, racial justice, and racial pride.
And with black men regularly being lynched in Virginia, Mitchell was an outspoken opponent of mob violence. In May 1886 a black man named Dick Walker, accused of rape, was lynched down in Charlotte County. About fifty white locals took him from the jail and hanged him from a tree.
This headline from the white press was typical of the time:
“A Negro Brute Swung Up in Charlotte County. The County Loses a New Rope, but the World Well Rid of a Fiend.”
In the Planet, Mitchell railed against the violence. He asked that the police be allowed to do their jobs. That judges and juries be allowed to do theirs. On more than one occasion, he suggested that black men arm themselves.
Not long after running his editorial, Mitchell received a letter in the mail. It was postmarked Charlotte County, and on the envelope someone had drawn a skull and crossbones. The letter inside carried no signature. It read:
“If you poke that infernal head of yours in this county long enough for us to do it we will hang you higher than he was hung.”
Unbowed, Mitchell printed the letter along with his response, which paraphrased Shakespeare:
“There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass by like the idle winds, which I respect not.”
He then strapped a pair of Smith & Wesson revolvers around his waist and boarded a train to Charlotte County.
I’m Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities. On this episode of NOT EVEN PAST, we consider the life of John Mitchell Jr., the Fighting Editor—
Someone who spared no personal or professional risk in standing up for what he thought was right.
Mitchell was born enslaved in 1863 on the estate of James Lyons, a politician who sat in the Confederate House of Representatives. The Mitchell family remained on the farm after the war. Mitchell’s mother taught him to read and sent him to a private Baptist school and then to one of Richmond’s new public schools.
He later studied education and in 1881 took a job teaching in Fredericksburg. After a few years, he returned to Richmond. But soon the newly appointed Democratic school board fired him and ten other black teachers.
Mitchell had already begun writing by this time. He’d penned a few pieces for the New York Globe and been noticed by prominent men such as Frederick Douglass. The famous orator wrote to a friend, “I have no fear but that young Mitchell will make his way in the world and be a credit to our race.”
In December of 1884, Mitchell became editor of the Richmond Planet. He was just twenty-one years old. The paper had been founded a year earlier and was in such financial straits that it had no offices. Mitchell worked out of a room in his boarding house.
From these modest surroundings, however, Mitchell raised his voice high. And the subject he was most passionate about was lynching.
“Lynching is a barbarous practice,” John Mitchell later wrote, “that has been out-lawed by civilized nations. It must go!”
And in May 1886, the twenty-two year-old editor boarded a train to Charlotte County. He would face down that anonymous death threat and, if necessary, the mob behind it.
He traveled about 85 miles southwest of Richmond. And when he arrived he walked another five miles to where the lynching had occurred.
Earlier this season, we met Christopher McPherson, a free black man who paraded through the streets of Richmond seventy-five years earlier. He sang, he danced, he clicked his cane. It was an early form of protest as performance.
And Mitchell was doing much the same thing. Walking through the little Charlotte County town of Drakes Branch, he jangled his six-shooters. He toured the jail where Dick Walker had been kidnapped and the tree where he had been murdered.
Mitchell dared anyone to stop him. He dared the white mob to show its face when a black man had a fair chance at fighting back.
More than anything, he dared white Virginians to own this terrible scourge.
Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that claimed almost 4,000 victims across the South between 1877 and 1950, including between 75 and 100 in Virginia.
They were men like Dick Walker, who may or may not have committed a crime but who were, without a doubt, the victims of one.
The white press labeled these black men brutes and treated them as less than human. But Mitchell knew better.
The real brutes joined the mob and picked up the rope.
He dared them to come out in Charlotte County—
And as he fearlessly walked the streets, not a one did.
A few years later Mitchell managed to actually save a man from execution. Simon Walker was just fifteen years old and had been convicted of raping a white woman.
(He was of no relation to Dick Walker, the lynching victim in Charlotte County.)
In the Planet, Mitchell wrote that “it would be a shame upon the State, a disgrace to the commonwealth to allow a child of that age to hang.” It would amount, he said, to nothing less than a legal lynching.
Virginia’s governor at the time was Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. As Walker’s execution date neared, Mitchell appealed to Governor Lee for a stay.
The governor was out of town so Mitchell traveled by train across Virginia to obtain Lee’s signature. He received the thirty-day stay of execution. Mitchell also helped Walker obtain legal counsel and even offered to pay for it himself.
When Walker’s stay of execution came to an end, Mitchell sought another delay. As it happens, Governor Lee was again out of town. It was the evening before Walker was to be executed. In a borrowed horse and carriage Mitchell raced through mud and rain from Richmond south to the Chesterfield County courthouse. There he dramatically delivered the papers authorizing another stay.
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. Walker left prison about 1907. And ever after, the white press bragged about Governor Lee’s near-bottomless compassion for even the worst among us.
John Mitchell Jr.’s role was largely erased.
In addition to his work on the Richmond Planet, Mitchell served on the Richmond city council. In 1901 he founded the Mechanics Savings Bank. His work at the bank brought him more into the political and social mainstream but its collapse in 1922 led him to be convicted on charges of fraud and theft. The conviction was later overturned but left him destitute. When the state Republican Party excluded most black delegates from its convention, Mitchell unsuccessfully ran for governor on an all-black ticket.
He remained editor of the Richmond Planetuntil his death in 1929.
It’s a sad, even anticlimactic end to the story of the Fighting Editor. In her excellent biography of Mitchell, Anne Field Alexander writes that he loved history. And he was worried that Virginians’ obsession with monuments to dead Confederate heroes might obscure the past.
“What does this display of Confederate emblems mean,” he asked. “What does it serve to teach the rising generations of the South?”
Nothing good, he thought, and predicted that while black men put up such monuments, one day they would also take them down.
Mitchell worried that future historians might miss the lives of black Virginians, and for decades many did. But the memory of John Mitchell Jr.—
His eloquent defense of the law—
His willingness to face down the mob—
In part that’s because he still has family living in Richmond …
Kimberly Wilson: I am very much a Richmonder. My boyfriend tells me that all the time. I think I have one of inner DNA type markers that I always have to come back to Richmond. I’m Kimberly Wilson and I’m the great-great niece to John Mitchell Jr., the fighting editor of the Richmond Planet.
BW: When Kimberly conjures the memory of John Mitchell Jr, one image comes to mind.
KW: There’s prominent black business owners at the time and John Mitchell Jr. was in this white tuxedo. Everyone else was in black grey tuxedos. He had to be different. He just had to be different.
BW: Wilson is a director of human resources at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. And she’s also the unofficial Mitchell family historian.
KW: He was a showman in a way too. He had a lot of spirit. He was gonna do what he wanted to do. There are stories in my family where he would go eat at the Jefferson. He wouldn’t sit in the back area. He would sit out in the front with everybody eating lunch there almost every day. He just was not one that anyone said you can’t sit in certain places. John Mitchell did what John Mitchell wanted to do. He had relationships with the governors at that time as you know. He was able to do things that other black folks and even just anybody wasn’t able to do. It seems like they gave him that platform. I’m gonna hear what you have to say Mr. Mitchell but I may not agree with you but I hear you.
KW: I think the Jefferson at that time they welcomed him. I don’t think they were gonna say anything to him because he was a very powerful man in the city. He owned a lot of property. He was incredibly wealthy. At that time if you think about it the bank that he was running had over $500,000 which back then I don’t know what the equivalent but I would think that would place him as one of the very wealthy banks in the south in addition to being black and owning a bank with that type of power, banking power. I think the Jefferson probably viewed him as a businessman. I’m sure they thought he was a character too. That’s the story again family lore. That’s just one of the things that family talked about.
KW: It always hits me that he walked these streets especially when I’m down around Clay Street. So, I am always aware of that history around Richmond in general.
I think something clicked in his mind to say you know what I’m just as good as these guys. As I get older I’m going to carry myself in this way and that’s just it. Yes, I am a black man but I’m also a very proud strong individual that has a voice. I’m going to use my voice because my voice is the most important thing next to my faith and my family. I think that’s why he rose up to this presence because he carried himself like that from the time he was a child that I am great. And that I want to make a difference with my people. As he got older he saw it’s not just black people. It’s all people for him. We all need to have these conversations about race and about how we talk about our humanity.
BW: Wilson went to Charlotte County a few years ago, the first time a Mitchell had been in there since 1886.
KW: It was very emotional because that was the first time a Mitchell had gone back to Charlotte County and I have to tell you it was an eerie feeling that I had. It was very emotional. In my brain I was thinking how could you be twenty-two years old and walk through this town? I’m in my 50s and I was still scared being there. There was no reason for me to be scared. It was the weight of the history. It had nothing to do with the good people that live there. They have to understand it was the weight of the moment as a relative of him standing for the first time. No one in my family had ever gone to that spot. I was the only one. It was an overwhelming moment because I just couldn’t imagine him doing this during that time period. Knowing that you could die at any moment. That somebody could come out and a mob, mob mentality and you’re gone. His mother Rebecca had to know that he may not come home. He may not come home and that would be it. What could she do from Richmond? That’s a good distance from Richmond, Virginia. I was also very humbled by that moment. Knowing that he did all this so that I could even be standing there today, so that I could in this county today was a humbling moment for me.
KW: I think he was here for a reason to be that advocate of making sure that people are treated fairly and equitably. It dawned on me that John Mitchell was born in 1863 and I was born in 1963. I was born 100 years. There was 100 years between us. I felt this special connection to him. I do feel like how can I continue his spirit and his voice. I think that’s why I probably do part of the job I do in human resources cause I love to know that people feel that they have a voice. Everyone has a right to speak their truth. I think about that every day. How do I add value to where I work, in my life with my family, with my friends. And hopefully that continues to carry his spirit.
BW: That was Kimberly Wilson, a Director of Human Resources at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
To learn more about John Mitchell Jr., go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org.
Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This podcast was produced by Miranda Bennett.