The first African American to be elected to the U.S. Congress as a Democrat, Arthur Wergs Mitchell was born on December 22, 1883, near Lafayette, Chambers County, Alabama, the son of ex-slaves, both of whom were born in Alabama. When he was 14 he left home to go to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, and while he was there he worked on a nearby farm, and then also as an office boy for Booker T. Washington. After leaving the Tuskegee Institute, he went to Columbia University for a short period before continuing his studies at Harvard University, and at Wilberforce University, Ohio.
Mitchell started teaching at a number of schools in rural Alabama, and then founded and became president of the Armstrong Agricultural School in West Butler, Choctaw County, Alabama. He was listed as president of the school when he was registered for the draft in World War I. Admitted to the bar in Washington D.C., he practiced law for 10 years, and he became involved in real estate. Moving to Chicago, Illinois, Mitchell practiced law there, and initially started working for the Republican Party, being in the state from where Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, came. However, he gradually found his views more and more closely aligned to the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1934 Mitchell defeated African American Republican congressman Oscar de Priest and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 1st congressional district of Illinois. In Congress he introduced civil rights bills against lynching and to remove discrimination. He also filed lawsuits against the Illinois Central and Rock Island Railroads after he was forced to sit in a segregated train carriage as it was about to pass through Arkansas. The court reached the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that the railroad company had violated the Interstate Commerce Act.
Although he was reelected in 1936, 1938, and 1940, in 1942 Mitchell decided not to stand for reelection, and resumed his law practice. He also spent much of the rest of his life campaigning for civil rights, giving many public lectures. He retired to Petersburg, Dinwiddie County, Virginia and farmed twelve acres there, known as the “Land of a Thousand Roses.” He had married Annie Harris, also from Alabama, and they had one son, Arthur, born in about 1916 in Georgia. Arthur Mitchell died on May 9, 1968, and was buried on his property.
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