Alabama-born educator and politician Arthur W. Mitchell (1883-1968) was followed by charges of financial fraud in founding and administering several agricultural primary schools of questionable purpose early in his career. Through deals with a series of white landowners, he received their sponsorship of schools that served as magnets to attract African American families to wooded land in need of clearing. While he provided children with basic lessons, fathers working as loggers became locked in peonage. Mitchell redeemed his reputation somewhat as the leading black campaigner for Franklin D. Roosevelt and subsequently as the pioneering African American Democrat elected to Congress, thereby contributing to African American participation in the Democratic Party.
Arthur Wergs Mitchell was born on December 22, 1883, in a one-room cabin in Roanoke, Randolph County, to former slaves Taylor and Ammar Patterson Mitchell. In September 1901, at the age of 17, he walked 65 miles to enroll in Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. Although he later claimed to have had a close working relationship with Washington, Mitchell lasted only one school year
at Tuskegee. In 1902 he enrolled at Snow Hill Institute in Wilcox County. He studied there for a year with Professor William J. Edwards, a Washington protégé, as a prelude to believing himself ready
to begin a teaching career. Always overly confident in his own abilities, Mitchell established a vocational elementary school
for African American children in Greensboro, Hale County, that he named West Alabama Normal and Industrial Institute. Financing came from a combination of local residents and Mitchell's
solicited support from several Northern philanthropists whom he understood had contributed to Tuskegee.
The school lasted five years, and Mitchell moved to Birmingham, where he turned to buying and selling real estate. Not very many months after arriving in Birmingham, Mitchell moved to Sumter County to take advantage of an opportunity to partner with the white owner of Fair Oaks Plantation, between the rural communities of Gainesville and Panola. The two men established the African American Building Loan and Real Estate Company and reopened the West Alabama Normal and Industrial Institute on October 28, 1908. An attempt to trap poor blacks in cheap labor on farms, Mitchell's activities were nothing more than willing participation in an unscrupulous peonage scheme. Mitchell's school was a two-story frame structure surrounded by a large garden plot planted and tended by students ranging in age from seven to 16. It was staffed by him, his wife, and at least one other teacher. The academy received mixed reviews from pupils and their parents. One man recalled many decades later that Mitchell "worked the devil out of the students." Children gained only some rudimentary lessons in both classroom and field work, and their parents learned advanced agricultural practices at school-sponsored institutes. Through mailed solicitations as well as personal appearances before northern philanthropic groups, Mitchell siphoned funds away from more worthy Tuskegee.
Washington tried to distance himself and Tuskegee from Mitchell with warnings to donors about the questionable nature of Mitchell's
operation in West Alabama. Washington particularly took issue with Mitchell's claims of his approval and support in the school's
letters and literature. Learning of Washington's attempts at separating his school from Mitchell's activities, the ex-pupil
blackmailed his mentor into a retraction by paying a Tuskegee telegraph operator to intercept personally damaging messages sent by Washington. With timber exhausted at Fair Oaks and African Americans now locked on the land, Mitchell's usefulness to the plantation's owner ended. The school's main building burned mysteriously in late 1911, and by 1912 Mitchell was ready with a new operation
a few miles south on a plantation near Geiger. Once again workers were lured to the property with false promises of educational
opportunities for their children. During the summers of Mitchell's years in Sumter County, he attended special non-degree
programs for southern black educators at Harvard and Columbia universities. The programs, among other things, were intended
to give attendees better command of English composition and diction. The new school at Geiger lasted only until January 13,
1915, when another unexplained fire destroyed the operation. Mitchell next set up shop in West Butler, Choctaw County, where he took an administrative position with an existing school, Armstrong Agricultural Institute. Back in Geiger, rumors
began circulating in the community that the school principal had actually set the fire to collect property insurance. Armstrong
continued to operate until late 1919, when Mitchell, facing legal problems over allegedly defrauding poor blacks of their
land, fled with wife Annie and son Arthur Wergs Jr. for Washington. Choctaw County court records reveal a number of pending
lawsuits against Mitchell. He had apparently tricked illiterate blacks into turning over their land titles to him. In each
case, however, Mitchell managed to avoid prosecution by remaining one step ahead of his accusers.
Fleeing to Washington, D.C.
Facing arrest, Mitchell left Alabama in haste and in 1919 arrived in Washington, D.C., where he used illegally acquired funds to purchase apartments and to study law. With no formal training, he passed the District of Columbia bar exam. A master of self-aggrandizement and fabrication, Mitchell ingratiated himself into the black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, becoming its national president and gaining important contacts that would eventually lead him to accept a position in 1928 of running the Chicago campaign for Republican presidential nominee Herbert Hoover.
Impressed by unusual political opportunities for African Americans in Chicago, including Oscar DePriest's election to Congress, Mitchell moved there in 1929 to pursue his own career in politics. After realizing that it would be impossible for him to become prominent in the Republican Party, he quickly realized that the Democratic Party offered better opportunities, given its scarcity of black members and candidates. Active in precinct and ward politics, Mitchell gained the attention of local party boss Joseph F. Tittinger, who recognized him as someone devoted to personal gain and success and who would not interfere with schemes by white political leaders that would adversely affect black constituents. In 1934 Harry Baker, the white Democratic nominee for Illinois's First Congressional District, died, thus opening the way for Mitchell as the replacement candidate. He received backing from Chicago's powerful Democratic political machine, and his candidacy was buoyed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's popularity that year. These factors, along with solid white support, were enough for Mitchell to overcome African American Republican incumbent Oscar DePriest's popularity among black constituents and score an upset victory.
To prepare Mitchell for service in Washington, D.C., Cook County Democratic Party head Patrick J. Nash instructed Mitchell
not to do anything to endanger passage of Roosevelt's New Deal reconstruction programs. Following directions, Mitchell distanced
himself from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on anti-lynching and other issues deemed offensive to Congressmen from southern states. Moreover, Mitchell, as the only
African American in Congress, refused to assume a role as the nation's "Negro representative." Overall, during his first three
terms Mitchell avoided divisive activities while proclaiming how much better southern whites understood blacks than northerners.
He directed blacks who wrote for assistance back to their representatives, stating that his only constituents were residents
of Illinois's First District. He introduced bills that did not raise objections from white lawmakers, such as one recognizing
Matthew Henson's North Pole feats and another designating Booker T. Washington's Virginia birthplace a historic landmark.
When federal legislation against lynching came up in Congress, he backed his own weaker bill over the more strongly worded
NAACP-supported proposal. When southern Democrats, whom he had expected to support him, opposed his bill, Mitchell threw his
support behind the stronger bill. During Mitchell's first three terms in the House of Representatives, he promoted the mythology
that African Americans in the rural South were more fortunate than their counterparts who lived in the urban North. He believed
that confrontational efforts toward civil rights would aggravate desegregation in the region. Although he did use his congressional
appointments to name several black young men to the service academies, his roll-call votes mostly reflected those of his fellow
Chicago House Democrats.
Mitchell proved, however, to be valuable in recruiting blacks from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party through his leadership of the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) Colored Division in the West during the 1932 and 1936 presidential campaigns. In each state, Mitchell hired and supervised African American workers to campaign for Roosevelt among black voters. He literally spanned the nation during both elections, speaking favorably of Roosevelt and of New Deal accomplishments on behalf of African Americans. During the late 1930s, Mitchell's recognition among African American college students was exceeded only by that of boxing champion Joe Louis and Olympian Jesse Owens.
During his fourth term, Mitchell finally began to achieve independence from Chicago's political leaders. After being forced from first-class railroad accommodations in Arkansas, Mitchell sued the offending carriers, the Illinois Central, Pullman, and Rock Island railroad companies. The case went to the Supreme Court on appeal, and the justices decided that following the separate-but-equal doctrine meant that transportation companies must offer first-class service upon request to both whites and blacks wishing to purchase better accommodations. Mitchell's victory against Chicago-based carriers antagonized leaders of the city's powerful political machine. Moreover the lawmaker's verbal assault in speeches from the House floor against defense contractors guilty of discrimination was also an apparent source of anger and friction with Chicago party officials. Hearing they would be backing Republican-turned-Democrat William L. Dawson's candidacy in 1942, Mitchell declined to run for reelection that year.
Mitchell retired to an estate south of Petersburg, Virginia, where he created Rose-Anna Gardens, complete with a mansion fashioned
after Tara, the O'Hara plantation in Gone with the Wind. Between 1942 and his death on May 9, 1968, he raised blue-ribbon cattle and prize-winning roses. A widower twice, Mitchell
married three times, and had only a son named Arthur Wergs Mitchell Jr., who spent the greater part of his adulthood in a
mental hospital. Although Mitchell spent only one year at Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington's self-help philosophy
remained with the former student. Unfortunately he often put that philosophy to questionable use in his early life. The actions
against discrimination in his later life, however, to some degree reflected a more sensitive social conscience that brought
real benefits to African Americans in the United States.
Nordin, Dennis S. The New Deal's Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
Dennis S. Nordin
Mississippi State University
Published September 18, 2007
Last updated February 26, 2013