A Knight Unlike Any Other: John Mitchell & The Knights of Pythias

John Mitchell campaign button, found in Nottoway Co. chancery causes, Library of Virginia. While processing Nottoway County chancery causes several years ago, Local Records Archivist Louise Jones came across a most unusual item fastening several papers together:  a campaign button advertising the bid of John Mitchell, Jr., to become Supreme Chancellor of the Virginia branch of the Colored Knights of Pythias.

The Knights of Pythias is a fraternal benevolent association founded in 1864 by Justus H. Rathbone in Washington, D.C. It began as a secret society for government clerks but soon expanded its membership. The order’s founding was in part an effort to shore up the government by healing the discord and enmity between the northern and southern parts of the country. The society took its inspiration from the Greek myth of Damon and Pythias. In the legend, Pythias had been sentenced to death by King Dionysius and Damon offered himself as collateral so that Pythias could return home to say goodbye to his family. If Pythias did not return, Damon would be killed in his place. Pythias was delayed by robbers while returning and Damon was nearly executed, but Pythias arrived just in time to save him. The king was so impressed by the true friendship of the two men that he released both and made them his counselors. The Knights of Pythias thus took “Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence” as their motto and their mission. Philosophically, the organization promoted universal peace and harmony between men. Practically, it provided community services such as insurance, burial services, and other welfare activities. The Knights of Pythias organization spread and soon had lodges in many other cities across the United States. In 1870, it became the first fraternal order to be chartered and incorporated by an Act of Congress.

The Colored Pythians came into being several years later as a parallel organization after the original Knights refused to admit African American members. Beginning in 1870 in Philadelphia, black men began petitioning to join the Knights of Pythias but were always refused membership. Eventually several light-skinned men who could “pass” were admitted, including Dr. Thomas W. Stringer of Mississippi, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and Reconstruction-era Mississippi state senator. Dr. Stringer remained in the Knights long enough to learn their organization and their rituals. He then left to form what was officially named The Supreme Lodge of Knights of Pythias of North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceanica; it was most commonly called the Colored Knights of Pythias. The purpose and function of the Colored Pythians were much the same as the white Knights but with one difference—the Colored Pythians offered membership and benefits without distinction of color. In reality, however, the organization was composed only of African American and Asian members. Dr. Stringer was the first Supreme Chancellor, or leader, of the first lodge of Colored Knights and has been called “the father of Masonry in the South” in one biography[i]  A separate organization for ladies was structured, called the Independent Order of Calanthe. Women had to be related to one of the Colored Pythians to be admitted to membership.

In 1894, the white Knights of Pythias in Georgia filed suit against the Colored Pythians.  They alledged that the Colored Pythians were wrongfully using the name “Knights of Pythias” in their attempt to incorporate themselves in that state, and were fraudulently using the titles, orders, insignias, emblems, and other paraphernalia of the white Knights of Pythias. The case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1912 that the Colored Pythians were entitled to use the name and accoutrements of the Knights of Pythias (see Creswill v. Grand Lodge Knights of Pythias of Georgia , 225 U.S. 246 (1912)). The white Pythians eventually dropped their racial membership requirements in the 1950s, but the Great Depression had done irreparable damage to both of the Pythian lodges. Both organizations exist today in extremely reduced numbers, with the Colored Pythians the less numerous of the two.  In some cities where the Knights still exist, the two groups have combined in an effort to perpetuate the existence of the organization.

The first group of Colored Pythians was formed in Virginia by R.A. Paul in Richmond in 1882. By 1911, there were 144 courts or individual groups with 6700 members in the state of Virginia. John Mitchell, Jr., became grand chancellor of the Virginia Colored Knights in 1894. In the later years of its existence in Richmond, the Colored Pythians headquarters was in the same building as the Mechanics’ Savings Bank founded by Mitchell in Jackson Ward in 1902.

John Mitchell, Jr., is best known today for his long tenure as the editor of The Richmond Planet, a newspaper founded in Richmond in 1883 by former slaves. Mitchell used his position and his paper to protest all forms of racial discrimination, prejudice, and hypocrisy, especially lynching, earning for himself the title of “the fighting editor.” He had a long friendship with internationally known anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. By 1887, the paper was one of the largest circulating black newspapers in the South. Mitchell was prominent in the Virginia Republican party and served as Jackson Ward’s delegate to Richmond City Council from 1888 to 1896. He ran for governor of Virginia on a controversial all-black ticket in 1921, commonly called the “Lily Black” ticket. He was president of the national Afro-American Press Association throughout the 1890s. Mitchell sustained a long relationship with Richmond schoolteacher Marietta Chiles, although the two never married. Chiles was also very involved in benevolent activities as the head of the Richmond branch of the Order of Calanthe and secretary of the Richmond Women’s League, founded to raise money to assist three African American women from Lunenburg County accused of murdering a white woman in 1895. The Mechanics’ Bank failed in 1922 after accusations of mismanagement and a protracted and expensive lawsuit. Mitchell died a few years later, on 3 December 1929.  He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, next to his mother.

 

–Sarah Nerney, former senior local records archivist

 

For more information see especially:

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

“Born in the Wake of Freedom”: John Mitchell, Jr., and the Richmond Planet web exhibit by the Virginia Newspaper Project.

Suzanne Lebsock, A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York, W.W. Norton, 2003).

E.A. Williams, S.W. Green and Jos. L. Jones, History and Manual of the Colored Knights of Pythias (Nashville: National Baptist Pub. Board, 1917, LVA Fiche 88 No. 288).

 


[i] History and Manual of the Colored Knights of Pythias, by E.A. Williams, S.W. Green and Jos. L. Jones, Fiche 88 No. 288, p. 946.

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