In 1882, the newspaper Richmond Planet was born. Founded by 13 formerly enslaved Richmonders, the Planet was first edited by Edwin Archer Randolph, the first Black graduate of Yale Law School. Two years later, 21-year-old John Mitchell Jr. became the editor, a position he held for the next 45 years. As the staff of Virginia Chronicle wrote:
Mitchell wasted little time: he replaced much of the press equipment, contributed his own artwork to the paper’s always impressive design, and increased circulation to the point that the Planet eventually turned a modest profit. The Planet by 1904 had reached a weekly circulation of 4,200. The paper also quickly gained a reputation as a staunch defender of the African-American community and a voice against racial injustice—‘daring to hurl thunderbolts of truth into the ranks of the wicked. . . . No stronger race man is known among us.’
Mitchell, “courageous almost to a fault,” never wavered in his protests, even in the face of frequent death threats. He once armed himself and personally went to investigate a lynching.
Hoping to influence change from within, Mitchell rose to considerable prominence within banking circles as well as the Republican Party and served on the Richmond City Council, representing Jackson Ward from 1888 to 1896. He served as the president of the national Afro-American Press Association during the 1890s, and in 1894 became the grand chancellor of the Virginia Knights of Pythias. In 1901, he was the founding president of Mechanics Savings Bank, established to protect the financial interests of the local Black community. In 1921, in protest of the all-white Republican slate of statewide officers, Mitchell ran for governor on the party’s “lily black” ticket. Although he was unsuccessful, the legacy of Mitchell and the Richmond Planet endures; the Planet continued until 1938, when it merged with the Richmond Afro-American. In 2012, a new grave marker was dedicated at Mitchell’s burial site at Evergreen Cemetery, in Richmond.
Not only did the Richmond Planet and John Mitchell Jr. cover local, national, and international news, the paper also called attention to segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, voting rights, and lynching. Yet alongside Mitchell’s thoughts on many serious issues, he also included space, often on the front page, to celebrate Black joy. As scholars Catherine Knight Steele and Jessica H. Lu contend:
Used colloquially in African American religious vernacular, happiness is often considered in juxtaposition to joy. Comparing the two, gospel artist Shirley Caesar sang of joy, ‘the world didn’t give it to me, and the world can’t take it away.’ Hip hop artist Nicki Minaj recently tweeted the same quote, insisting that joy is not confounded by circumstances or based on reactionary mental maneuvers (Minaj, 2010). In his memoir, Cornel West (2010) asserts that, for Black folks, joy and pain live together.
Recently adding to this theorization of Black joy, activist and online writer Brittany Packett has argued, ‘Joy is resistance. Oppression doesn’t have room for your happiness. You resist it when you find joy anyhow’ (Packnett, 2017a). Beyond the ‘duty’ to perform happiness (Ahmed, 2010, p. 249), Packnett (2017b) insists that conscious acts and expressions of joy are vital forms of resistance in a society shaped by oppression, racism, and violence. Packnett’s position invokes a similar sentiment expressed in Alice Walker’s famed novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, in which the protagonist, Tashi ‘Evelyn’ Johnson, ultimately discovers that ‘resistance is the secret of joy’ (Walker, 1997, p. 281).1
With the words of these scholars in mind and the context and history of the Richmond Planet, we felt it was important to highlight and share Black love and Black joy expressed through community, music, dancing, writing, and celebration within the pages of the Planet. It is important to add that these articles could often be found next to very serious issues, which show the nuance Mitchell displayed when organizing this paper.
Many of the articles referenced were written around 1902, during the time of the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention, which as Mitchell was sure to point out in the Planet, was an attempt to reinstate white supremacist rule in Virginia. The context of joy in spite of and amidst oppression during this time highlights all the more the importance and beauty of this joy. John Mitchell Jr. was an important and needed voice in Virginia and while Mitchell and his newspaper should be remembered in history for shining a light on injustice, they should also be remembered for sharing everyday stories of joy and love. Below are just a few of many more such stories found in the Richmond Planet.
Joy in Community
Mitchell often featured articles on the front page in celebration of community. Some features included anniversaries and celebrations of the fraternal organizations of the Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria and the Knights of Pythias, with which John Mitchell Jr. was heavily involved.2 Articles described beautiful and joyous parties and receptions, filled with good food, music, and dancing.
One article chronicled a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Knights of Pythias, where “Peace, love and harmony, some of the many characteristics of the Order, prevailed throughout the entire evening, and all present enjoyed themselves to the fullest extent.” It was a night where “dancing was engaged by all those who could, and those who couldn’t, regretted for the first time in their lives that they did not know how.”3
Another article announced a “Grand Musical Festival and Organ Reopening” at the Second Baptist Church, where a “Great Musical Festival by the following choirs: First Baptist, Ebenezer, Fourth Baptist, Sixth Mt. Zion, Fifth St. Baptist, Mount Carmel, Fifth Baptist, Moore St. Baptist, and First Baptist Choice of Manchester” would be performing. The advice given was to “Come early and secure good seats.”4
The articles convey a wonderful sense of community and joy, as well as enjoyable parties full of tables that “fairly groaned under the weight of the many delicacies of the season.”5 Yet another example is on the front page in 1902, nestled next to an article titled, “The Unconstitutional Convention.” The short and sweet article mentions a Valentine’s Day party hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Garrett, with a large gathering and a beautifully decorated table; a party where “Every one enjoyed themselves until a late hour in the morning.”6 All of these excerpts exude friendship and happiness and, as another article adds, “Right fellowship always gives joy.”7
Joy through Writing/Poetry
Mitchell would also feature and center joy through the writings of poets and authors, both women and men, pulled from publications around the country and sometimes even from international publications. Some of his papers featured a “Poetry Corner,” or “Gems in Verse,” where snippets of poetry were shared, while other papers had columns titled, “Helpful And True.” Snippets of jokes often surrounded or were interspersed within many of these columns.
While the verses shared were not always authored by Black writers, it is clear that John Mitchell Jr. made very conscious decisions in what to share. For example, one passage featured the words of Rev. A.C. Welch, taken from the book Character Photography. Welch quoted a passage from American Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier: “For still in mutual sufferance lies The secret of true living; Love scarce is love that never knows The sweetness of forgiving.”8 Mitchell also shared words from the Atlanta Constitution columnist writer and first poet laureate of Georgia, Frank L. Stanton, in one of his “Gems in Verse” corners. It begins: “There’s joy enough, good people, when the furrows feel the frost…”9
In “Helpful And True,” we see words from a “Miss Wells” (I’d strongly imagine this author is none other than Ida B. Wells); her powerful words read, “Cheerfulness is not always spontaneous; it is greatly a matter of habit and bears cultivation. One who can contrive to bear a smiling face through a world where there are so many troubled hearts, may unconsciously be a public benefactor.”10
— Co-authored by Ashley Ramey & Emma Ito
- Lu, Jessica H, and Steele, Catherine Knight. “‘Joy Is Resistance’: Cross-platform Resilience and (re)invention of Black Oral Culture Online.” Information, Communication & Society 22, no. 6 (2019): 823-37. Activist adrienne maree brown too writes of the importance of celebrating joy as an act of resistance in her work, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.
- To learn more about the Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria, visit information from the Lynchburg Museum. Via their webpage, The Independent Order of Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria was a predominantly Black fraternal order founded in 1847. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Lynchburg citizens were members and were actively participating in meetings, rituals and community leadership. The Lynchburg Museum has a rare and unique collection of items from this time and in 2019 displayed a variety of artifacts including documents, photographs and regalia. To learn more about John Mitchell, Jr.’s involvement with the Knights of Pythias, visit the linked past Uncommonwealth blog.
- “Blooming Lily Lodge, 15, K.P Celebrates,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 8 February 1902, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “MUSIC! MUSIC! MUSIC!” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 22 February 1902, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “Anniversary Celebrated,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 15 February 1902, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “St. Valentine Party,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 22 February 1902, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “The YMCA Notes,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 21 July 1923, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “Spread Good Cheer,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 20 June 1903, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “Joy Enough” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 20 May 1905, accessed 17 February 2021.
- “Helpful and True,” The Richmond Planet (Richmond, VA), 30 January 1904, accessed 17 February 2021.