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Tony Gentry

Richmond's Fighting Editor: John H. Mitchell


Of the several historical figures who populate my new novel The Night Doctor of Richmond, newspaper editor John H. Mitchell plays a key role. Born enslaved, as was the book’s protagonist Chris Baker, he took over the editorship of The Richmond Planet in 1884 and brilliantly wielded his pen against the injustices and bald hypocrisies of the Jim Crow era. Though many Black Richmonders were illiterate in the post-Civil War era, Mitchell, a skilled draftsman, accompanied his stories with cartoons that told the tale, many of them scathingly funny in their depiction of the era’s ugly absurdities.

 

Here, for instance, is one of his ink sketches from an 1891 edition, showing how the Virginia law mandating separate train cars ended up with crowded white cars and nearly empty cars for Black passengers:



Mitchell crusaded against lynching and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and he reviled the practice of the two medical schools in Richmond of robbing graves – always only in Black cemeteries – for anatomical dissection. My book recounts a front-page article that described a visit to the dissection laboratory at the Medical College of Virginia, where he witnessed and sketched my novel’s protagonist Chris Baker quite gruesomely preparing the body of a hanging victim for shipment to another college. That article, which confirmed depredations on the bodies of the deceased that had only been rumor until then, led to a march on the Egyptian Building and a near riot. Mitchell’s continuing coverage of local grave robbery put a bulls-eye on Baker’s back, making him a virtual prisoner in his basement cell at the Medical College.

 

Mitchell, however, was not only a crusading newspaper editor. He launched a savings bank for the Black community, presided over a national organization of Black newspapermen who railed against racial injustice, and even ran unsuccessfully for governor of Virginia. A biography – Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” – John H. Mitchell, Jr. (2002), by Ann Field Alexander was published in 2002, and you can access online versions of The Richmond Planet at the Library of Congress' Chronicling America archive: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.

 

In 2005, a historical marker in Mitchell's honor was placed at the corner of North 3rd and East Marshall Streets in downtown Richmond. To my mind, Mitchell deserves a statue for his tireless efforts on behalf of racial justice in our city.




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