The Fighting Editor

Alexander, Ann Field. Race Man:  The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” John Mitchell Jr., University of Virginia Press, 2002

Review by Dick Hall-Sizemore

John Mitchell, Jr. was a major figure in Richmond and Virginia public affairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the course of this career, he was a nationally known newspaper editor, a member of Richmond City Council, president of a bank, and a gubernatorial candidate.

In her well-researched biography, Ann Alexander tells Mitchell’s story in fascinating detail. In the course of following the life of Mitchell, the book provides insight into the political and social lives of middle-class Blacks in Richmond’s Jackson Ward in the late 19th century. There is also a discussion of the effects of the Readjuster movement and the subsequent defeat of the Readjusters and rise of the Democratic party in the city and state.

John Mitchell, Jr., the child of slaves, was born July 11, 1863, at Laburnum, an estate in Henrico County on the outskirts of Richmond. His parents were house servants of James Lyons, a prominent Richmond attorney. After Laburnum burned to the ground less than a year after Mitchell’s birth (the result of suspected arson by a disgruntled slave), the Lyons family eventually relocated to one of Richmond’s finest houses, a Greek Revival mansion on Grace Street near Capitol Square.

After the Civil War ended, Mitchell’s parents remained employees of Lyons. When he was old enough, Mitchell was put to work, greeting guests at the door, pouring their wine, and waiting on them at the table. When he was ten years old, he became Lyons’s carriage boy and later drove Lyons around in his carriage.

In this environment, the young Mitchell was exposed to “a style of life that would have dazzled all but a few whites.” (p. 5)  In addition, Lyons himself was a man almost larger than life. Before the war, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and French and English nobility had been among the guests at Laburnum. After the war, he was one of the lawyers retained by Jefferson Davis in his treason trial. Contemporaries of Lyons described him as the “handsomest man of his day” with “flawless manners” who carried himself with the “conscious air of a superior and a leader.” (p. 2). Alexander speculates that his exposure to Lyons had a lasting impression on Mitchell. “Like his former master, Mitchell was long remembered for his distinguished appearance, his courtly manners, and his aristocratic bearing.” (p. 6)

Mitchell’s father left Richmond sometime after 1880 to work on the railroad in Illinois, but kept in touch with his children. Mitchell gave his mother most of the credit for his success. Rebecca Mitchell taught the young John to read and write at an early age. She saw to it that he went to school and tended to his lessons. She was also “fastidious about his appearance.” (p. 7)

At first, Mitchell was an “indifferent” student but, by the time he got to Richmond Normal and High School, he proved to be an outstanding student, winning numerous medals, including several for “elocution.” He also demonstrated considerable artistic talent.

After graduating from Richmond Normal in 1881, Mitchell taught school for three years. After being fired from his teaching position, due to a change in the political makeup of the school board, he, at the age of 21, volunteered to take over the fledgling Richmond Planet, a four-page weekly founded a year earlier.

The newspaper was a combination of local, state, and national news stories; editorials; and notes of everyday happenings in Jackson Ward, such as church activities, weddings, funerals, visits, etc.

Mitchell quickly became known for his furious attacks on lynching and his efforts to assist Black prisoners. In the first years of The Planet, he would run on the front page of each issue a drawing (by him) of a lynching, “a grisly cartoon showing a Black man hanging from a tree.” (p. 41)

His editorials were fierce and urged Blacks to defend themselves. “The best remedy for a lyncher or a cursed mid-night rider is a 16-shot Winchester rifle in the hands of a dead-shot Negro who has nerve enough to pull the trigger.” (p. 42) He was always careful to specify that such violence should be used only in self-defense but, more than once, he speculated that members of a lynch mob would think twice if there were a chance that they would “carry back” some of their own.

His crusade brought attention, along with threats. In 1886, two years after he assumed the editorship of The Planet, a Black man accused of attempted rape was lynched near the town of Drakes Branch in Charlotte County. Mitchell reacted with a scathing editorial. The next week, he received an anonymous letter declaring, “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”

After printing the letter in The Planet, and wearing his Smith & Wesson revolvers, he took a train to Charlotte County, walked five miles to the site of the lynching and visited the neighborhood and the jail from which the victim had been kidnapped. “The cowardly letter writer was nowhere in evidence,” he reported to his readers.  (p. 42)

Alexander describes numerous instances in which Mitchell championed the cases of Blacks he felt had been unfairly accused of crimes. He used The Planet to publicize their stories and to raise money for their defense. Using the money raised, he would hire white attorneys to defend the accused. He appealed to the governor, even, in at least one case, traveling hundreds of miles to find the governor, who was on vacation, in order to secure a stay of execution. Despite threats, he made trips to localities outside Richmond to investigate the cases, often wearing his revolvers.

Mitchell did not limit his campaign to violent crimes. He cataloged, and railed against, the bias shown against Blacks every day in the same courts .

In addition to his editorials railing against the heightened efforts to impose segregation, he took action such as leading a boycott of the Richmond streetcars after the company announced that Black passengers must sit in the rear.

In his long fight against Jim Crow laws, Mitchell was visibly impatient with Whites who called for no “mixing” of the races. He did not hesitate to remind them that there was one area in which they did not object to races mixing—in bed. In response to proposed legislation requiring separate railroad cars for Blacks, he admonished, “When you really want isolation from the race, practice it at home and in your private affairs and our people may be more liable to believe in your sincerity.” (p.21) In objecting to segregation on street cars, he was more explicit, answering that “white men who mixed the races and gave us white Negroes didn’t do it on street cars.” (p. 139)

In all his writing and activities on behalf of Blacks lynched, unfairly prosecuted, and discriminated against, Mitchell considered it his mission “to howl, yes howl loudly, until the American people hear our cries.” In response, the editor of the Indianapolis Freeman called him “the Fighting Negro Editor” who would “walk into the jaws of death to serve his race.” (p. 40)

Mitchell used The Planet for two purposes. The first was “to howl loudly” for his race. The second was to instill in Blacks, particularly Black men, a sense of pride in their race. He urged Blacks to discard the habits instilled in them as slaves, such as approaching Whites with hat in hand, eyes downcast, shuffling their feet, etc. “Respect white men, but do not grovel. Hold your heads up. Be men!” he directed. (p. 62)

He preached the virtues of middle-class values: hard work, responsibility, savings, etc. On the second page of each issue of The Planet, under the masthead, there would be a single column of announcements and self-help admonitions. Here is a sampling from the Feb. 15, 1896 and March 12, 1896 issues:

  • We must work. Idleness is an evil as grievous as sin itself.
  • Politeness is a jewel which gives the possessor of it a right to good society.
  • We have hundreds of white friends in the South. Let us prove ourselves worthy of their friendship.
  • We must learn to be self-reliant and reliable.
  • Let us be honest, frugal, polite and obliging.
  • Teach your children good manners. Let them be polite to white folks and to colored ones. It costs nothing, sacrifices no manhood and will be a world of benefit to us in our struggle for racial independence and recognition.

Usually there was also included the warning about the need to possess firearms and be willing to use them in self-defense.

Mitchell was a natural politician—handsome, well-spoken, articulate; confident, even somewhat arrogant; well-mannered. He got into politics early in his career, being elected to Richmond City Council when he was 25 years old.

However, as Alexander wryly commented, “Mitchell was able to win elective office not because white Richmonders were unusually tolerant but because of racial gerrymandering.” (p. 74)  Jackson Ward had been purposely drawn to encompass the bulk of the Black population so as to protect white candidates in the other wards.

Mitchell was a strident Republican. He used The Planet to lavish praise on Republicans and to damn Democrats. Although he entered elective office a few years after the Democrats achieved a comeback against the Readjusters and were on the rise, Republicans were still strong in Richmond.

The residents of Jackson Ward were active in politics. Thousands flocked to the polls on election days. After the votes were counted, the victors were treated to a parade through Jackson Ward complete with a brass band, torches, and drummer boys. Although Mitchell was the most prominent politician, politics in the ward were not monolithic. Mitchell had his critics and there were factions vying for support.

With the ascent of Democrats to power came increased attempts to disenfranchise Blacks. There was no intimidation or use of force. The nullification of Black electoral power was accomplished through other means. The most common was delay. When the polls opened, White voters and Black voters were in separate lines, with individuals voting alternately. When the much shorter White line was finished, the offices of election went into stall mode. It might take half an hour for a prospective voter to be allowed to vote while party officials challenged his qualifications. After all, as some Democrats explained, it was a “well-known fact that negroes are hard to identify.” (p. 76) It was not uncommon for hundreds to be left standing in line when the polls closed. (Unlike today, those in line at the closing time were not allowed to cast their ballots.)

In 1894, the General Assembly enacted legislation that gave Democratic electoral boards even more tools to nullify Black votes. One of the most blatant was a requirement for a voter to mark his ballot by drawing a straight line at least three-fourths the way through the names of the candidates for whom the voter did not want to vote. In practice, ballots could be, and were, thrown out because the lines drawn by the voter were too short, too long, too crooked, or too faint.

When Mitchell and other Blacks ran for re-election in 1896, hundreds were left standing in line when the polls closed and election officials admitted they threw out “hundreds” of ballots because they were “improperly” marked. No Black candidate in the city won election. It was a Democratic sweep.

Alexander describes numerous other practices Democratic electoral boards used to nullify Black votes, such as including bogus names on the ballots, such “John Mitchell” and “John Mitchell, Jr.” on the same ballot. The amount of fraud that took place is breathtaking to the modern reader, but was accepted in Mitchell’s day and even admitted to by the Democrats.

All this fraud was a prelude to the infamous 1902 Constitution that effectively disenfranchised most Black voters, along with a lot of poor Whites. As he had in the past, Mitchell published a string of editorials denouncing the constitutional convention. He sarcastically noted that Democrats had “tired of their vocation” of stealing elections and were trying to find a way to ease their consciences. (p. 107) Alexander goes into detail on the politics of the convention, the resultant electoral provisions, and their effect.

After the early 1900’s, Mitchell’s editorials lost a lot of their former fire and early bite. Alexander offers several possible explanations. Primarily, he was tired and discouraged. Everyone seemed to have abandoned Black citizens. Throughout the 1890’s, he had appealed to upper-class Whites and hoped they would be supportive of his efforts. However, as Alexander observes, “after 1910 he became increasingly skeptical about white professions of goodwill.” (p.159) That especially became clear with the adoption of the 1902 constitution. The state and federal courts had failed to protect Blacks from voter fraud or Jim Crow legislation. The Republican Party in Virginia was no longer a factor in state politics. Northern Republicans had also abandoned Blacks.

There were personal distractions demanding his time. He became embroiled in a major fight within the Black church. As a result of some of his editorials published in that fight, he had to fight off a libel suit. For his defense, he hired prominent White lawyers, whom he probably could not alienate too much. In 1900, his brother, Tom, to whom he was close, was killed in an accident. Tom had headed up the job-printing activities of Planet Publishing, which brought in a significant portion of his revenue. After Tom’s death, that responsibility fell on Mitchell. He also became the surrogate father of Tom’s two children.

Perhaps the biggest factor in the changing tenor of his editorials was his shift from politics to business. In 1894, he had become the state leader of the Virginia Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order licensed to sell life insurance. He worked diligently to open new lodges and sell insurance. With the funds from the life insurance sales forming the nucleus of its deposits, he founded the Mechanics’ Savings Bank in 1902. As part of his efforts to establish and grow the bank, he made overtures to wealthy Whites and business leaders. Through the influence of an influential White sympathizer, he was invited to attend the annual meeting of the American Bankers Association in New York in 1904. He was the only Black banker at the meeting. In succeeding years, he attended annual meetings of the organization in cities all over the country, all the while being the only Black banker in attendance.

The bank brought Mitchell a measure of prosperity. He bought a “handsome residence.” He also purchased a Stanley Steamer and enjoyed using it to take visitors on a tour of the city.

To make money, banks need to invest their deposits, of course. The Black community lacked the commercial enterprises needed for banking investments and the White business community was not going to deal with a Black bank. Mitchell settled on investing in real estate. He had a good grasp on the Richmond real estate market, but many of his real estate ventures rankled Whites in the community. They included construction of a building for his bank in a White neighborhood of older houses. purchase of many houses in the area, “nearly all of which were rented to Whites,” according to the Times-Dispatch; purchase of a three-story brick building on the south side of Broad Street (the “white” side); and purchase of an opulent White theater.

Not only did Mitchell’s real estate investments irritate White businesses and residents, they caught the eye of the state government. The head of the banking division of the newly-formed State Corporation Commission consistently warned Mitchell that the cash reserves of the Mechanics’ Savings Bank were dangerously low and the bank was not showing a profit. Mitchell countered that the real estate investments were profitable. The major problem with that argument was that it was illegal for banks to invest in real estate.

Mitchell, however, had found a way around the banking regulations. He would establish shell corporations, the bank would issue notes to those companies, and the companies would buy the real estate. There were other problems, as well. Among them were an opaque bookkeeping system and Mitchell’s habit of overdrawing his personal account. Mitchell had established good relations with the head of the banking division and, although the regulator constantly pointed out problems and almost pleaded with Mitchell to come into compliance, he did not take firm action.

During this period, Mitchell made a last foray into politics. By 1920, the state Republican Party had come to the conclusion that it needed to shed its image as the “party of the Negro.” It excluded Blacks from its state conventions in 1920 and 1921. For the gubernatorial race in 1921, its candidate consciously sought to project a lily-White image. In response, Black political leaders decided to run their own slate of candidates and offered Mitchell the top position. (Also on the “lily-Black” ticket was Richmond’s Maggie Walker as the candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Under the provisions of the 1902 state constitution, that was an elective position. Constitutional amendments in 1927 made it a governor-appointed position.)

Alexander terms Mitchell’s campaign a “halfhearted” one.  (p. 188) He took three weeks out of the campaign to make a trip to the West Coast to attend the ABA convention. In the end, Mitchell came out a distant third in the voting with just a little over 5,000 votes, much lower than had been predicted.

After the election was over, his bank troubles came crashing down on him. There was a new bank regulator in office, who was not inclined to be as patient with Mitchell as his predecessor had been. After getting fed up with Mitchell ignoring his warnings regarding the bank’s solvency and what he regarded as insufficient efforts to improve the bank’s position, the regulator closed the bank down. As a result of audit, Mitchell was indicted on charges of embezzlement, falsification of records, and theft of bank funds. He was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to three years in prison.

After a two-week stay in jail, he was released on bail while his case was being appealed to the state supreme court. Following almost two years of legal maneuvering, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned Mitchell’s conviction on technicalities and remanded the case to the circuit court for retrial. However, the Commonwealth’s attorney decided to drop all charges against Mitchell.

Although he was out from under a criminal cloud, Mitchell was ruined. Many friends had stood beside him and contributed to his defense fund, but there were many who felt betrayed by the bank’s closing and the criminal charges. The circulation of The Planet decreased significantly. He worked at “various schemes” to get the bank reopened, but none were successful. Technically, he was homeless. Before his trial and conviction, he had deeded over his house and the Planet building to the bank in an effort to shore it up and save it. However, despite pressure from creditors, the bank’s receivers allowed him to continue to live in the house and publish The Planet out of its building without charging him rent. His health failed and he died from nephritis in December 1929 at the age of sixty-six.

In summary, Alexander concludes, “Mitchell’s greatest legacy, however, was not the bank but his newspaper. He published the Planet for forty-five years without missing a single issue. He wrote hundreds of editorials denouncing racial prejudice and reported the everyday events that gave meaning to the lives of his readers. He died before the civil rights movement began to break across the South, but during that long bleak interlude between the end of Reconstruction and World War II, he and other black journalists kept alive the dream of full citizenship.”  (pp. 207-208)


Mitchell’s newspaper survived him. After his death, his nephew, Roscoe, took over as editor of The Richmond Planet.  In 1938, Carl Murphy of the Baltimore Afro-American bought the Planet and renamed it the Richmond Afro-American and Planet. It continued publishing in Richmond until 1996.

There has been more interest in Mitchell in recent years. The Department of Historic Resources placed a historic marker in 2005 in Richmond near the site of the former building that housed The Richmond Planet. In its 2022 Session, the General Assembly authorized the issuance of a license plate commemorating The Richmond Planet. Finally, VPM, the local Public Broadcasting Corp. affiliate, has produced a documentary on Mitchell and his newspaper.


Unfortunately, Alexander’s book is out of print. The publisher, University of Virginia Press offers an e-book version. The Richmond Public Library has several copies in its collection. However, the Henrico, Chesterfield, and Fairfax libraries do not have it in their collections. In a spot check, the websites of the Norfolk library and the regional library in Charlottesville showed a copy in their stacks.  Arlington County has a noncirculating copy

The good news is that issues of The Richmond Planet have survived and, except for a few of the first issues, are available digitally.