John Mitchell Jr. was nationally known as the “fighting editor” for his brave, heroic stands for freedom against Confederate-minded policies that stripped Black people of their human rights during the post-Reconstruction era.
Now, a step has been taken to officially recognize his greatness in Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy that fought the Union to preserve slavery. Richmond-area residents and visitors to Downtown can view a prominently displayed state historical highway marker that recognizes, among other achievements, his courageous battles against lynching, his triumph against segregated streetcars in Richmond, his election to City Council and his economic justice accomplishments.
The marker is located at the Third Street entrance to the Greater Richmond Convention Center at the corner of North Third and East Marshall streets in Downtown. The center is the state’s largest exposition and meeting facility. An estimated, 300,000 visitors pass through it each year, according to Michael Meyers, the convention center’s general manager. The marker stems from efforts of Raymond H. Boone, editor/publisher of the Richmond Free Press, which underwrote the production and erection of the marker.
Mitchell’s family and other community supporters last month celebrated the unveiling of the large marker in the Jackson Ward community. The commemorative event was held during the week of Mitchell’s 149th birthday.
A dozen of Mitchell’s family members were joined by about 50 other celebrants in the inspiring unveiling ceremony sponsored by the Free Press in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau and the City of Richmond.
It began with an emotional tribute ceremony inside the center. It then moved outside for the unveiling and back inside for a reception.
“This is so wonderful,” John H. Mitchell, Mitchell’s great-great-nephew, said of the tribute and marker unveiling. “He grew up right here and any physical representation to remind people that know of him and teach those that don’t about what he did is so important for this city to recognize.”
Mitchell helped unveil the marker in a slight drizzle. He was joined in the unveiling by Boone; Jack Berry, president and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“Our family is so grateful to Mr. Boone and the Free Press family for the time they put into making this recognition possible,” said Ida Mitchell, great-great-niece of Mitchell, as she and other family members admired the marker after its unveiling. “This is long overdue. This is not just black history, but history for everyone.”
Mitchell and Boone were among a parade of speakers who paid tribute to the history-making freedom fighter. Two larger-than-life posters of Mitchell framed the speakers’ podium near the convention center entrance.
Other program participants included Mayor Dwight C. Jones, City Council President Kathy C. Graziano, Kilpatrick and King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state NAACP. Also, Stacy Burrs, board chairman of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia; Jeffrey Bourne, deputy chief of staff to the mayor; and Dr. Ralph Reavis, president of Virginia University of Lynchburg, of which the famed editor was a founder.
VUL football coach Willard Bailey, who also is the CIAA’s winningest all-time football coach, offered an invocation to open the ceremony. Jean Patterson Boone, vice president and advertising director of the Free Press, presided at the event.
“On this beautiful day, I stand here to represent my family,” Mitchell, who works in the music industry, told the responsive audience.
He spoke of how his great-great-uncle “used journalism to change the landscape of America by exposing the truth of our dreams, hopes and the determination to do for ourselves.”
He said Mitchell carried “a fancy-handled six-shooter” to “let others know that he valued his life, so you had better value yours.”
He “was effective,” he added, “because he had a gun in his hand (especially against lynch mobs), the truth on his lips and an army at his back.”
The mayor was a late-show to the event for good reason after earlier indicating he could not make it because he had to tend to official obligations. He came midway through the event after welcoming President Obama on the tarmac at Richmond International Airport before the president went to a campaign rally at Walkerton Tavern in the Glen Allen area of Western Henrico County.
The mayor thanked Boone for the marker. He also compared him to the late, great crusading editor, saying, “You (now) carry on that mantle of leadership in this city.”
The mayor lauded the tribute to Mitchell, saying: “We are so happy we are unveiling this long overdue marker that should have been here much, much sooner than today.”
Council President Graziano also called Mitchell’s recognition “long overdue” and hailed him as “a man who fought for equality and justice.”
Burrs told his listeners, “It is impossible to tell the history of Richmond without telling the story of John Mitchell Jr.”
Sadly, he added, “For too long, African-American history has been treated as though it was somehow separate and distinct from American history. Men who are not accommodationists, men that do not yield, African-American men and women who are uncompromising often are not honored in this way.”
Kilpatrick called Mitchell “a hero in a quintessential American way. It takes heroes to fight for freedom and integrity” through “the power of the pen, the power of the word, and that’s what John Mitchell Jr. did. He bequeathed us a great legacy in that regard.”
Khalfani passionately referred to Mitchell as “a man amongst men” who was “an unashamed and unabashed race man with loyalty to his family and oppressed African-American masses.”
He challenged those in the audience “to emulate his work and his example. To do otherwise would be cowardice.”
Reavis said he first learned of Mitchell’s legacy while doing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s.
“There was no more fierce editor or race-conscious African-American than John Mitchell Jr.,” said Reavis a former Richmond minister. “He was not afraid, and he never compromised his convictions and his integrity like some of his generation.”
Boone was the final speaker. He recalled Mitchell’s campaign at the Richmond Planet against the placement of the “treasonous statues” of Civil War villains on Monument Avenue, “correctly calling it “a legacy of treason and blood.”
“When we look at Monument Avenue, this is very perverted. Where else do you know a city, a country that would glorify villains, a country that would glorify people that would try to destroy this country and would try to keep Black people enslaved?”
He continued, saying, “Honoring John Mitchell Jr. is consistent with the American ideals of equality, justice and opportunity. It also is consistent with giving balance to history. Recognition of John Mitchell also would break Richmond away from its ugly past and eliminate its inferiority complex.”
Referencing the oversized posters of Mitchell, Boone said, “John Mitchell, the true patriot and champion of freedom is here. John Mitchell Jr. is here bigger than life as you can see. Let’s applaud him.”
The marker unveiling comes nearly six months after a grave marker was unveiled at Evergreen Cemetery in Eastern Henrico County at Mitchell’s previously unmarked gravesite.
Boone suggested that the best way to honor Mitchell is “to walk in his footsteps” for “the good of our city, our state and nation.”