RICHMOND, Va. — At intersections across the city, on walls street poles and signs, tributes stand to a giant in Richmond lore. A man you may never have heard of.
He was a monumental figure who wielded power in black and white.
“He is Richmond’s most famous unknown citizen,” said film producer Sly Tucker. “He is one of the most recognized names in Virginia and faces, but no one knows his story at all.”
John Mitchell Jr. was born into slavery in Henrico in 1863.
Tucker, historian and film producer for Tilt Production and Creative said following the Civil War, Mitchell moved up the rungs of society during the Reconstruction period. And he urged other African Americans to follow.
“That is all he was trying do was say, ‘Hey, we’re not better, but we are all on equal terms,” said Tucker.
Mitchell owned a bank, bought real estate and served on city council. And in in 1921 he became the first black man in Virginia to run for governor.
“I promise you every day I’m learning something new about John Mitchell, Jr.,” said Tucker.
In 1883, Mitchell took the reins of the "Richmond Planet," one of the nation’s oldest Black-owned newspapers. He was 21.
“The cool thing about the Richmond Planet, it had pretty big type, but it had really big illustrations too, so if you couldn’t read you could get the gist of what was going on through the illustrations,” explained Tucker.
Tilt Creative and Production’s Chief Content Officer Scot Crooker said at the helm of the Planet, the man known as the “Fighting Editor," left his mark in a most unorthodox way.
“He wasn’t looking to be a martyr, but he certainly wasn’t concerned. He realized he was something bigger,” said Crooker. “He was one of the first to run a full column on the front page at times of all of the lynchings going on in the country.”
In every edition, Mitchell would splash images and print lists of people slaughtered by vigilantes.
“He was given death threats. He was sent ropes, nooses and things like that,” said Crooker.
Mitchell's anti-lynching crusade and blistering editorials gained him notoriety.
“Front page. Bold type. Unjustified lynching. We’re going to get to the bottom of all this,” said Tucker. “They were so provocative, they made the Richmond Times-Dispatch say, ‘Well.. Maybe we need to say something more.’”
The civil rights champion never wavered. Mitchell often rode armed and alone to rural Virginia reporting on murderous mobs.
“I question whether I would have the courage he had,” said Tucker.
Mitchell’s story reads like fiction, but his very real tale is documented in a new film "Birth of a Planet."
Tilt Production and Creative’s CEO Ron Carey hopes Mitchell’s exploits will inspire a generation of Richmonders.
“I think that all of a sudden you realize that there is a hidden gem and it is sitting right in front of you,” said Carey. “I don’t know what thing he drew on that allowed him to say I’m going to get up every day and then dedicate part of my life to make other people’s lives better.”
One person elated that this mythical figure is moving into the spotlight is Mitchell’s namesake.
“John Mitchell is doing more than just smiling at this right now. He is saying it is about time. It is about time.”
The great-great-nephew can walk in his ancestor’s footsteps. Mitchell’s ornate home still stands at the corner of Third Street and Jackson.
“When I see this house, I don’t think about the newspaper. I don’t think about the bank. I don’t think about all of the other things he did. I think about family.”
The modern day John Mitchell said his uncle still motivates.
“We are all carrying on his spirit. I am definitely trying to carry on his spirit. He had the hubris. He wanted to lead the pack but he didn’t want to do it alone,” said John Mitchell. “A shrinking violet is definitely not what he was.”
In 1929, the civil rights champion’s voice was silenced. He died in his home at the age of 66. Mitchell was buried next to his mother in Evergreen Cemetery.
“More people are learning about John Mitchell and I think that is a good thing. That is a very good thing,” said Tilt Creative and Production’s Scot Crooker
The man who was once enslaved blossomed into a fearless figure who would rule The Richmond Planet.
“You don’t necessarily need to remember the person. But you need to remember the works,” said documentary film producer Sly Tucker.
Over time murals and tributes fade. But in John Mitchell, Jr.'s case, nothing is more long-lasting as the path he paved.
“I learned a saying long ago. Men plant seeds for trees they’ll never enjoy the shades of,” said Ron Carey. “John did that He left a legacy and a story and his generations moving forward will continue to be building off of that legacy.”
If you would like to learn more about John Mitchell, Jr., the documentary "Birth of a Planet" premieres at the Richmond International Film Festival on June 10.
You can also watch Greg McQuade's "Heroes Among Us" reports Thursdays on CBS 6 News at 6 p.m.
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