Listen to this story
Agriculturist, lawyer and Congressman Arthur Wergs Mitchell made history as the first African-American elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1935. The Congressman spent much of his four terms in office primarily advocating for the constituents in his district and supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.
Mitchell was born December 22, 1883, on a farm near Lafayette, Alabama. He was born to formerly enslaved parents and attended public schools throughout his youth before working his way through Tuskegee Institute.
After finishing college, Mitchell taught in rural southern schools and even established an agricultural School in Alabama, where he held the position as the school’s president for 10 years. He furthered his own education by attending Columbia and Harvard University. In 1927, Mitchell was admitted to the bar in Washington, DC, and practiced law there before relocating to Chicago.
In addition to his work in the law field, Mitchell also took an interest in real estate and politics. He initially aligned with the Republican Party but shifted his political views when President Roosevelt proposed his New Deal. Mitchell defeated his republican opponent, Oscar De Priest, in a 1934 election for an Illinois congressional seat. Mitchell joined the 74th Congress and served up until the 77th Congress.
While in office, Mitchell had a focus on the constituents he represented in Illinois, but that would often get him criticized. He was assigned to the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads and held the position throughout all four terms. Mitchell continued his support for President Roosevelt because he believed that his programs aimed to correct many of the problems faced by the African-American community in terms of economic conditions and employment.
Mitchell was also responsible for the nomination of several African-American candidates for military academies and brought attention to racial discrimination. He sponsored bills that outlawed racial discrimination in civil service roles, and in 1941 he became part of a small group of congressmen who were in office, but also successfully argued a case before the Supreme Court.
At the time of the 78th Congress in 1942, Mitchell decided against seeking re-election and retired from congress. Following his retirement, Mitchell spent the remainder of his career on the land he purchased in Petersburg, Virginia. He continued farming and lecturing until his death on May 9, 1968.