John Mitchell Jr.

John Mitchell Jr. (1863–1929), was a former enslaved person with a complex story, who became the editor of the African American newspaper the Richmond Planet — and some of whose descendants are members of the University of Richmond community. Known as the “Fighting Editor,” Mitchell “became one of the most powerful Black voices in late 19th- and early 20th-century publishing,” according to the Freeman report. As an anti-lynching advocate, Richmond city council representative before disenfranchisement (1886–96), leader of the boycott against segregated streetcars in Richmond (1904), and founder of the Mechanic’s Bank, Mitchell consistently challenged white supremacy. His life was not without controversy. He was convicted of bank fraud and was jailed for two weeks before being released; the conviction was ultimately overturned.

A fearless champion of racial justice, as the research shows, Mitchell often challenged Freeman’s editorial stances and never hesitated to denounce his racism. On one occasion, for example, Freeman praised the patriotism of African Americans enlisting to fight in World War I, although in a racist manner saying many of them had “the physique of giants” but “the minds of children.” While Mitchell seemed to look past some of Freeman’s words about African American patriotism, he did shine a spotlight on the hollowness of his praise. “What are we to receive in the way of recognition for this loyalty?” Mitchell wrote. “We have been promised improved housing conditions. Have we secured these conditions? ... We have been told that the segregation laws recently enacted will work out to our betterment. Have we been able to observe naught else but irritation and humiliation on the part of those entrusted with its enforcement?” As Mitchell made clear, Freeman and others like him were hypocritical in praising African Americans for shouldering the burdens of citizenship while denying them its privileges. Mitchell did not allow Freeman’s mistaken assertions about African Americans and segregation to go unchecked — and how he embodied personally the kind of intellectual and professional achievement that Freeman believed impossible for Black people. This juxtaposition provides a more accurate representation of Freeman and the realities of his time, as well as evidence that there were always critical voices and obvious facts that challenged and contradicted Freeman’s positions.