Born a slave in Richmond on July 11, 1863, John Mitchell was appointed editor of the weekly paper, the Richmond Planet, in 1884 at the age of just twenty-one. He quickly gained a reputation as a man determined to expose racial injustice wherever it lurked. Mitchell used his stature as a crusading newspaper editor to propel himself into a political career. In the spring of 1892, at the age of 28, he was elected to Richmond's Board of Aldermen from Jackson Ward, and he was reelected in 1894. In 1921 after the state's Republican Party convention effectively disavowed interest in Virginia's African Americans and adopted what was referred to as a "lily-white" platform, Mitchell ran for governor on an all-black—"lily-black"—independent Republican ticket.
As a member of the Knights of Pythias, Mitchell rose to the title of Grand Worthy Counsellor, and was the state's leader of this semisecret society into the 1920s. The National Afro-American Press Association elected Mitchell to consecutive presidential terms early in the 1890s. There he led fellow newspaper editors in an organized outcry against "Southern outrages" and lynchings, and in their endorsement of the work of antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells. He foresaw the decline of weekly newspapers and advocated the founding of daily newspapers owned by African Americans, but written with a larger community in mind.
Of all his endeavors, Mitchell's Mechanics Savings Bank was the most ambitious. As founder and president of the institution he strove to make it the place Richmond's African Americans saved their money and did their banking, but in the summer of 1922 the bank was in crisis. Amid controversy Mitchell was accused of misusing tens of thousands of dollars of the bank's funds. In a fight that went to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Mitchell countered the charges and accused the state's establishment of retaliating against him for his run at the governorship the previous year.
Mitchell's legal battle was to drag on for over a year. Responding to his public pleas for solidarity, the community increased savings entrusted to Mechanics Savings Bank and contributed to a John Mitchell, Jr., Defense Fund. While his conviction was ultimately set aside and he was cleared of all charges, the Mechanics Savings Bank went into receivership in 1923. The bank was rechartered in July 1924. Mitchell's idea of an African American–owned bank was finally lost. Mitchell would not recover from this blow. His savings and assets were all but lost. He remained editor of the Richmond Planet until 1929, when he collapsed in the office of his beloved paper, and died at his home on December 3, 1929.
Alexander, Ann Field. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the “Fighting Editor” John Mitchell Jr. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.