Alabama-born educator and politician Arthur W. Mitchell (1883-1968) was the only African American representative in the U.S. Congress between 1935 and 1943. He became the first black member of Congress to serve as a Democrat, representing a district in Chicago, Illinois. He was followed by charges of financial fraud in founding and administering several agricultural primary schools of questionable purpose early in his career. 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 W. Mitchell 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 attended only one school year at Tuskegee. In 1902, he enrolled at Snow Hill Institute in Wilcox County. He studied there for a year with William J. Edwards, a Washington protégé, as a prelude to considering himself ready to begin a teaching career. 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 funds from local residents and Mitchell’s solicited support from several northern philanthropists who had contributed to Tuskegee.
The school closed after five years, and Mitchell moved to Birmingham, where he turned to buying and selling real estate. Soon after, 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. The school was in reality a scheme to attract poor blacks to farms and woodlots in need of cheap labor. The two-story frame structure was 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. 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 the more established 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 efforts, 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 Booker T. Washington and African Americans now locked into debt peonage 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 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, D.C. Choctaw County court records reveal a number of pending lawsuits against Mitchell.
In Washington, he used illegally acquired funds to purchase apartments and study law. With no formal training, he passed the District of Columbia bar exam. 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 decided 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. 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 Pres. 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 to fully support passage of Roosevelt’s New Deal reconstruction programs. Mitchell thus 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. He directed southern 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 would be palatable to 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. 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 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, Mitchell v. United States, 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 his son spent the greater part of his adulthood in a mental hospital.
Nordin, Dennis S. The New Deal’s Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1997.