Mitchell, Arthur W.

Mitchell, Arthur W. (Wergs)

(1883–1968) U.S. representative; born near Lafayette, Ala. Growing up on a farm, in 1897 he went to Tuskegee Institute, where he worked as an office boy for Booker T. Washington. He taught in rural schools in Georgia and Alabama and then founded and served ten years as president of the Armstrong Agricultural School in West Butler, Ala. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1927, and began practicing in Washington, D.C., before moving to Chicago (1929), where he engaged in the real estate business while practicing law. Like most African-Americans up to that time, he had entered political life as a Republican, but with President Roosevelt's New Deal he switched to the Democratic Party. In 1934 he defeated the venerable Republican African-American Oscar De Priest, to become the first Democratic African-American in the U.S. House of Representatives (Ill., 1935–43). An outspoken liberal, he denounced the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and nominated black youths to the U.S. military academies. After he had been forced out of a Pullman car in Arkansas, he sued for the right of African-Americans to receive the same accommodations as whites in interstate transportation, and argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Mitchell vs. United States et al., 1941), although it was 1955 before the practice was changed. He continued to fight for the rights of African-Americans—in 1942 proposing to outlaw all poll taxes on the grounds that if blacks could fight for the U.S. they were entitled to vote. On leaving the House he settled in Petersburg, Va., and remained active as a lecturer and with such organizations as the Southern Regional Council.