John Mitchell, Jr. didn’t directly denounce the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Memorial when white Richmond unveiled the granite shaft on Libby Hill in 1894. The editor of the Richmond Planet had greeted the Lee Memorial on Monument Avenue four years before with a broadside of sarcasm and deadpan so pungent that his quips are frequently quoted today.
Mitchell’s reporting on that occasion, and oft-quoted Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois lines that condemned Confederate monuments, satisfy our desire for someone—anyone—to have spoken directly against the Lost Cause, with its rewriting of history and malevolent racial implications. But those instances are rare. Opposition with high dudgeon and direct action is hard to find, and when found, even harder to see as a movement that meets our need for contemporaneous opposition.
Black men and women in Richmond, with precious few white allies in the era of the Lost Cause, however, nurtured a historical memory that stood as a direct answer and condemnation of the Lost Cause. Black counter memory, like its counterpart, was a useable past: it had warnings and prescriptions for the present and future. Yet that counter memory is not as visible to us because it was embroiled in the daily experience of a racial community slowly losing its public voice to Jim Crow.
Mitchell’s Richmond Planet effectively chronicled the vibrant and varied Black experience in Richmond at the dawn of Jim Crow Virginia and in the middle of unfathomable racial violence across the United States. Active in Republican politics as a Richmond city alderman, Mitchell promoted Black businesses, tracked the comings and goings of the Black middle class, and aggressively advocated for his wing of the Republican Party on a state and national level.
Mitchell often took up the causes of black men and women who had been unjustly convicted of crimes in Virginia. In 1894 he advocated for Isaac Jenkins, a Nansemond County man charged with selling illegal liquor and who had survived a lynching. In 1895 he undertook the defense of one man and three women accused of murdering a white farm wife in Lunenburg County, perhaps his finest moment.
He republished stories of the Civil War in the Planet that celebrated United States victory as the Lost Cause matured. But as white Richmond regularly paused its public life to add to its Confederate identity with statues, memorial windows, and a reverent civic culture, Mitchell never repeated his Lee Monument mockery
But he did say something.
Mitchell’s description of two parades in May, 1894, originating in Jackson Ward show the ways he mobilized the history and contemporary lived experience of black Virginians to create a powerful counter narrative to the Lost Cause.
On the Monday two days before the Soldiers and Sailors monument unveiling, Mitchell’s Republicans celebrated their victories in May 1894 municipal elections over Republican “bolters” with a parade. The Planet noted the militia, bands, mounted marshals, torches, carriage-riding politicians, and transparent lantern shows with cartoons lampooning Republican bolters and declaring anti-silver sentiments.
Richmond’s white Democratic newspaper, the Dispatch, described this spirited procession as a chaotic scene of “negroes…crowding over one another on sidewalks” and hoisting aloft “grotesque” effigies and “indecipherable” transparencies.
On Wednesday—Memorial Day—Richmond’s African American militia marched out again, along with members of the local George A. Custer Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, to the Richmond National Cemetery on Williamsburg Road “to decorate the graves of the Union dead, pay annual tribute of respect to those who saved the nation, and rendered a lasting benefit to the South thereby.” At the cemetery, celebrants listened to the Reverend Wesley F. Graham speak on “Manly freedom; the object of the War.”
That same day—that whole week, in fact—white Richmond did not honor United States veterans, but instead donned Confederate regalia and opened its doors to ex-Confederate dignitaries and veterans for the Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument dedication in Church Hill. The Dispatch reported on one such veteran, General James A. Walker of Wytheville, Virginia. Walker claimed that, “it made his heart feel glad to once more see the old capital of the confederacy in gala attire, with the colors of the lost cause prevailing on all sides.” Walker, who the previous year had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, explained that he still proudly displayed a Confederate flag outside of his home in Wytheville.
Mitchell excerpted the Dispatch’s notice about Walker word-for-word in the Planet, but substituted his own judgmental headline:
Statements Which Do the South No Good.
As a staunch Republican and Black man, Mitchell did not hesitate to call Confederate nostalgia a poison to a racially and politically progressive Virginia.
While Richmond’s African American militia paid respects to the United States dead in the national cemetery, on Church Hill, another minister, Robert Cave, unleashed a particularly unreconstructed dedication speech at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He violently condemned abolitionists and other Northerners and claimed unreserved faith in the old south and its Confederate vision. Cave’s speech was so hostile that it elicited the protests of Union veteran organizations who had become accustomed to genial and fraternal relations with their Confederate counterparts—and for which Richmond’s more genteel and restrained ex-Confederate leaders later spent no small amount of time apologizing.
But no listener complained about Cave’s retrospective of race relations: patient and virtuous cavaliers in 1861, he claimed, “believed that the immediate and wholesale emancipation of the slaves would be ruinous to the whites and blacks alike; and that, under the then existing conditions, the highest interests of both themselves and the colored wards committed to their keeping demanded that the relation of master and servant should continue.” Like his opinion of abolitionists, Cave’s view of race relations had not progressed.
While John Mitchell did not organize direct action against the emerging Lost Cause memorial landscape in the same way that he organized legal defenses of unjustly accused men and women or streetcar boycotts to protest the municipal segregation, every single issue of his newspaper in the 1890s traced the legacy of the Lost Cause vision of unequal race relations—the chronic lynching of black men who transgressed the racial boundaries that Lost Causers drew. He was so diligent that one skeptical white correspondent called him “Lynch Law John.”
He was intimately familiar with the ongoing efforts of the Virginia General Assembly to disfranchise black voters through ballot and voting integrity laws. The Walton Act, passed two years before, had dealt a blow to Virginia’s poor and illiterate African American voters. White legislators would soon campaign for a disfranchisement of all black men in Virginia, and succeed in 1902.
The Reverend Graham at the national cemetery on the
same day—perhaps at the same moment that Cave carried on about the evils of racial equality—also knew. He…
declared that the relinquishing of any right upon the request of the white man had been followed by more arbitrary demands along similar lines. We gave up first the ballot in the southern states, then followed lynching and kindred outrages. Then came the Jim Crow cars.
Graham admonished his listeners to “assert your manhood under all circumstances even though you die thereby,” and evoked the memory of the “200,000 black men” who “risked their lives upon the battle field” in the Civil War to “demand all of our rights and win by our own manhood.”
Cave and Graham together—though they gave no evidence that they were aware of each other’s speeches—were in perfect dialog; and it wasn’t just about the past, but about the contemporary stakes of historical memory. Cave conjured from fantasy happy slaves and a functioning racial inequality in the old south in a veiled appeal to preserve that status as near as possible. Graham called upon the very real examples of black men who asserted manhood and citizenship in the 1860s to steel men in his own time for the struggle against a concerted campaign of disfranchisement and violence. Cave didn’t call for lynching, but Graham and Mitchell knew lynching resulted from Cave’s call.
Mitchell tossed some editorial shade of his own. His review of the unveiling ceremony in Libby Hill was hilarious in its brevity and droll facts. He did not simply reverse the Dispatch’s crude racial observations of the political parade. Instead, he noted that “a pitiless rain fell which soaked the soldiers, and also the women and children and made cheerless and dreary the delivery of the oration…”
All newspaper references are from the Richmond Planet, June 2, 1894.
On a Black counter memory in the era of Jim Crow, see Kathleen Clark, Defining Moments: African American Commemoration and Political Culture in the South, 1863-1913; W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory; Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy; and David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
Cave’s speech can be found in Report of Committee on Ceremonies Incident to the Unveiling of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, at Richmond, Va., May 30th, 1894. For the reaction to Cave’s speech, see page 189 in Caroline Janney’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation.