Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Bank for John Mitchell, Jr.

The former home of Maggie Walker is now a National Park Service National Historic Site and appears much as it was left by Mrs. Walker when she died in 1934. Hanging on the wall of the library are the portraits of a veritable who’s who of African American notables such as Webster Davis, W.E.B. Dubois, and Frederick Douglass who still occupy a position of honor along these walls, together with portraits of Richmond’s Black leaders. Among these, is this photo of John Mitchell, Jr., Walker’s contemporary, rival, and friend, and whose memorial photograph has hung in this spot since his death in 1929.

John Mitchell, Jr. is an important figure in the history of Richmond’s black community, whose influence was spread through the pages of his newspaper, The Richmond Planet. He was outspoken in his opposition to the lynchings so prevalent across the American South during his lifetime, spoke out against the grinding Jim Crow laws of his day and was a Richmond city councilman. He was also a banker and entrepreneur. The bank building he struggled to build in Jackson Ward, the Mechanics’ Savings Bank, although largely unacknowledged, represents a high-water mark of African American enterprise in this remarkable old Richmond neighborhood. The banker and his building are both worthy of a closer look.

John Mitchell, Jr. (1863-1929)

This is the building where John Mitchell, Jr. began his banking enterprise in Jackson Ward, at 411 North Fourth Street. Like so many black businesses in this era, it was established in a former house. The eruption of black business out of houses like this and into office buildings offered opportunities for African American architects, builders, and contractors during the late 1800s and early twentieth century.


Offices of The Richmond Planet


The demands of an emerging black elite caused a wave of construction in Richmond’s segregated neighborhoods to house this demographic. In contrast to his banking venture, Mitchell chose to remain in this location for his newspaper and from here on North Fourth Street he monitored the lives of Richmond’s African American society and took a hand in events affecting his race across Virginia.


The grave of Mitchell’s mother, Rebecca, in Evergreen Cemetery.


Mitchell was always known as the “fighting editor” of The Richmond Planet, and perhaps the best insight into his combative and uncompromising character can still be found literally engraved in stone. This is the remarkable testimony he added to the inscription on his mother’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery. “SHE HATED DECEIT AND DESPISED HYPOCRISY. HER CHRISTIAN TRAINING AND UPRIGHT CONDUCT MADE ME ALL THAT I AM, ALL THAT I HOPED TO BE.” It is unusual that the values of such a vivid personality be displayed in such a public manner, but these simple lines are truly the essence of John Mitchell, Jr.


Mitchell campaign button, The Library of Virginia


Like Maggie Walker, Mitchell’s base of influence was a fraternal organization, in his case the Knights of Pythias, which he headed as Grand Chancellor. The direct descendants of the secret meetings and burial clubs created by enslaved blacks before the Civil War, these self-help and beneficial societies became ritualized into fraternal groups for men and women alike.

The need for insurance and savings for Richmond’s increasingly sophisticated African American society led to the creation of fraternal organizations of banks and insurance companies to provide services otherwise unavailable. Mitchell’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank was established in 1902, in a time when the term “mechanic” had a more general meaning and referred to any tradesman. Like the Richmond Planet, this bank was established in a former Jackson Ward home. This was typical of the architecture of necessity under the compression that was segregated Richmond, where African Americans were increasingly constrained by the infamous Jim Crow Laws.


View of Main Street in Richmond

The center of white business in Richmond was on Main Street, lined with stately and classical bank and mercantile houses, and Mitchell realized that his bank would have to grow and find more appropriate quarters than the basement of a former townhouse. Mitchell needed a building that was solid, substantial, and secure and would signal the same quality as a Main Street bank. He, like Maggie Walker, always urged Richmond blacks to shop, save, and invest in their own communities, and Jackson Ward was the logical location for his new headquarters. Mitchell needed a building with the same style as what was on display in granite and marble on Main Street in Jackson Ward in order for his bank to grow and succeed.

Elevation of Mitchell’s Mechanic’s Savings Bank from The Richmond Planet.


In 1909 the Richmond Planet proudly ran this elevation of the proposed bank building to be constructed at Third and Clay streets. The architect was Carl Ruehrmund, who was one of a wave of architects who left Germany and established practice in Richmond in the late 1800s. Beginning in the 1890s Ruehrmund’s career included the design of numerous high-style houses, commercial buildings, hotels, and churches all over Richmond.


Ruehrmund’s Henrico County Courthouse, constructed in 1896.

Carl Ruehrmund’s most visible commission in Richmond was the Henrico County Courthouse, which still stands at 2117 East Main Street. This two-towered courthouse has been termed Richardsonian Romanesque done on the cheap, since the Henrico commissioners were terrified by the cost overruns that plagued the exuberant Richmond City Hall which was completed three years before. Nevertheless, Ruehrmund’s ability to move in ten years’ time from this heavy and dark style of architecture to the building for Mitchell, with its variety of window framings and light, cream-colored brick is noteworthy.


Ruehrmund’s perspective drawing of the Mechanic’s Savings Bank.

This perspective drawing, signed by Ruehrmund, appeared in The Richmond Planet. The choice of Ruehrmund, as a white architect, may seem counter to Mitchell’s ethic of self-help within the African American community. The logical choice would have been John Lankford, a Washington-based Black architect who had designed several commercial and residential buildings for Richmond’s African American high society. Lankford was linked in the press with the failure of the United Order of True Reformers bank, and this was not an association that Mitchell needed in starting his own enterprise. Charles Russell, Richmond’s first native professional in the field, had yet to design his first commission for Maggie Walker and was yet unproven, while Ruehrmund’s craft was on display all over the city.

Mitchell was on the verge of realizing his banking dream with this building. There were offices on the upper floors of the bank for African American doctors, lawyers, and business leaders, potentially making Third and Clay streets a new crossroads of Black commerce in the city.  


Daniel J. Farrar (1862-1923)

In anticipation of beginning construction, Mitchell sent his contractor, Daniel J. Farrar (1862-1923), to City Hall to file the necessary drawings and applications for a building permit. Farrar was one of the premier African American builders and contractors in Richmond and constructed many of the buildings and homes for Jackson Ward’s leading businessmen and companies. Farrar was well acquainted with the procedures involved in obtaining permits for construction, and with a roll of Carl Ruehrmund’s blueprints under his arm went to City Hall to start the process of building John Mitchell’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank.

And that is when he and John Mitchell ran into Henry P. Beck. 

Henry P. Beck (1868-1962)


The city operated for more than thirty years under the imperial reign of Wilfred Cutshaw, City Engineer, until Cutshaw’s death in 1907. Richmond’s builders and contractors, architects and designers must have felt they finally had a respite from a heavy-handed City official and probably all breathed a sigh of relief. That is, until Henry Beck was made Richmond’s first Building Inspector later the very same year.

Beck held the post of Building Inspector until 1940 and cut a wide swath in the city, denying permits, demolishing buildings, condemning existing structures and halting construction for materials he felt were substandard. It is because of Henry Beck that Richmond lost most of the towering steeples that marked our older churches, and many altered church buildings with abbreviated steeples stand today as mute testimony to the tenure of Building Inspector Beck. Beck is responsible for the condemnation of such Richmond landmarks as Ford’s Hotel, the city’s Seabrook Warehouse, and the First Regimental Armory. Hundreds of old structures disappeared under the wheels of the Building Inspector’s office.

Henry Beck was a power in the land.


Beck was combative and not afraid to wade in and personally halt a building project or have a business forcibly evacuated and boarded up at midday. Because of his brash nature, he was on more than one occasion attacked in the street by City employees. Beck fired his underlings without compunction when they failed to meet the Building Inspector’s expectations.

Beck’s delaying tactic appears to have been a response to the white property owners on Clay Street. They were gradually being forced from Jackson Ward by the growing tide of black enterprise centered along Second Street and they protested vehemently against the construction of Mitchell’s bank. 

After Farrar submitted the necessary architectural drawings and forms, Mitchell telephoned down to City Hall to discover the delay on his building permit. Mr. Beck said he was occupied. Mr. Beck was out that day. Mr. Beck remarked that the demands of his post (no doubt busy condemning buildings right and left) made it impossible to review Mitchell’s plans.

“We are doing our best to get on with some of these white folks down here” Mitchell moaned in the pages of The Richmond Planet, where he reported his experience with Beck, “…but some of them make us mighty tired.”


Beck’s office delayed the building permit until finally Mitchell forced his hand, threatening to construct his bank across the street from a White church on Cary Street. At the same time Mitchell discovered there was nothing to prevent the construction of a facility for Tuberculosis patients on the site at Third and Clay and filed a building permit for a “Negro Sanitarium” adding a new thrill of horror for White homeowners on Clay Street.

In the end, and faced with Mitchell’s counterattack, even Building Inspector Beck relented and suddenly found time to review the banker’s application and issue the building permit for the Mechanics Savings Bank. No one in Richmond, Black or White, reading the account of this story at the time had any doubts about what was going on between Mitchell and City Hall. These maneuverings were typical of the difficult steps necessary to circumvent the segregated reality of the city.


The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, promoting Mitchell’s new bank building, January 1917.


The opening of the bank on July 2, 1910, was a glittering affair, with the banking room decorated with palms and flowers and the public touring the bank from basement to roof until after midnight. “One should think that Fifth Avenue, New York, had been removed to Richmond,” gushed the Richmond Planet. Mayor D. C. Richardson came to see the new building, as did the Board of Aldermen and the Common Council. “The inside of the vault,” sighed The Planet, “is a dream.”

John Mitchell, Jr. and the vault at the Mechanic’s Savings Bank


Mitchell was justifiably proud of his bank vault and often had himself photographed in front of it, the epitome of the progressive banker and the latest high-tech security device, both signaling “your money is safe here.” In the decades before the introduction of F.D.I.C. deposit insurance, the very fabric of a bank building had to impart this sensation of a rock-solid, safe, and secure repository for money.

The style, design, security and gravitas that a bank building imparted was as important to the large Main Street banks as it was in Jackson Ward. Like courthouses and churches, banks as a building type had to create resonance to reinforce the purpose of the building and give it weight and solemnity. Few other types of building so depended on their appearance and material, their design and their gravity, to build confidence and respect at a glance.


The miserable architecture of one Richmond bank on Patterson Avenue.


Since deposits are insured by the federal government today, the concept of dignity and stature of bank buildings has been largely lost in bank designs such as this specimen on Patterson Avenue. Most of today’s banks, in contrast to the columned and granite halls of yesterday, impart little architectural promise other than your hard-won wages might not get wet when it rains. The stately bank building, which once bespoke such gravity and such strength, is fading from our landscape.

Unfortunately, Mitchell’s Mechanic’s Savings Bank failed financially in 1922, leaving the banker and editor penniless in his declining years until his death seven years later. His last days were spent in litigation, trying to save his bank and in the end, attempting to keep the Richmond Planet from being sold to pay his debt associated with the bank. Mitchell lost his personal assets and was hounded by creditors and courts until his death. 

Mitchell’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank, once the glittering height of the banking industry for blacks in Jackson Ward, still stands today at Third and Clay streets looking on the exterior much as Carl Ruehrmund designed it one hundred and ten years ago. With its light brick it now serves as a shining gateway into Jackson Ward for visitors to our city.

In fact, an unusual tribute was paid to the German architect and his enthusiastic African American patron. Because his bank building was so admired…


…that there are now two of them.  In 1931 a Richmond architect named Edward Sinnottt took Ruehrmund’s original plans and simply reproduced them again beside the existing bank, joining the two with a shallow hyphen. This was probably an economic solution to increasing the size of the building for its then-owner, the Southern Aid Insurance Company, at a time in the depths of the Great Depression.


The date of the new construction was helpfully added to a plaque on the façade between the now twinned buildings, although this erases the date of the original half of the building. It also ignores the bank’s early history and, as is so often the case, the role of John Mitchell, Jr. is overlooked. As is also common, the importance of the building’s early story is lost to scholars of African American history by the placement of the 1931 date. 


A Southern Aid Insurance Company promotional pamphlet.


The bank building served as the headquarters for the Southern Aid Insurance Company, the nation’s oldest African American insurance company, for many years before that firm was bought out by Atlanta Life. Staff from the Library of Virginia rescued the papers of Southern Aid in the middle of the night from a dumpster parked in front of this building years ago, affording a invaluable insight into the workings of the once-extensive insurance company that operated within these walls.


The lobby of the Mechanic’s Savings Bank while under renovation.

Today the building has been renovated after sitting unused for many years. The lobby of the former Mechanic’s Savings Bank is, however, a stripped-down shadow of its former glory, and above the dropped acoustic tile the ceiling that was described in that account of the inauguration of the bank as “beaming with magnificent radiance” is long gone. The elaborate plasterwork which Mitchell was careful to note was done by “the colored plasterers, Messers Winston and Freeman” has also disappeared.

John Mitchell, Jr.’s pride and joy, his ten thousand dollar thirty-five-ton vault door is, alas, today nowhere to be found.


Second Street today.


If Mitchell were to stroll the halls of his bank building today would be shocked not only by its Siamese twin next door, but also by the view across the rooftops of Jackson Ward. To the west, the Taylor house with its distinctive dome on Second Street, which was once described as the “largest and most costly Negro mansion in the United States,” is still there and recently restored, as has the Hippodrome Theater next door. Sharon Baptist Church can still be seen from the former bank, although Mitchell would find the square tower of Leigh Street school now oddly truncated and missing the tall Mansard roof that he knew.


The Richmond Convention Center, as seen from the former Mechanic’s Savings Bank.

To the east, the monstrous Richmond convention center seems to loom over Mitchell’s bank and peer in the windows, a frightening postmodern presence that consumed much of his old neighborhood and the site of his office and home. Where Jackson Ward once extended east toward downtown from Third Street, now the sterile plate glass and chrome expanse of the convention center occupies a part of the city once filled with shaded streets and Italianate Victorian townhouses.

Mitchell’s former home displays classic Richmond iron decoration.

Mitchell’s home at 515 North Third Street was rescued from this wave of destruction caused by the convention center. The editor and banker called this building home for his entire adult life and lived here with his mother until her death and later with other family members. Mitchell himself died here in 1929.


Mitchell’s home in its new location.

The Mitchell house was moved to this location at Third and Leigh in 2000. Unfortunately, no signage indicates that the house was moved, why, or who once lived there. It now stands on the edge of the VCU Biotechnology Complex behind it, an inexplicable survivor of its now-destroyed neighborhood, stark and shorn of context.


The Richmond Planet announces Mitchell’s death on December 7, 1929.


John Mitchell, Jr. died on December 3, 1929 after a long career as a pioneer of what would later become universally termed the struggle for civil rights. The Richmond Planet ran a huge headline the day after Mitchell died, exclaiming “Race Chieftain Sheds Armor.” That week the newspaper printed and distributed that commemorative photograph of Mitchell, one of which still hangs in Maggie Walker’s library.


An enormous procession of mourners accompanied Mitchell’s coffin from Fifth Street Baptist Church out to Evergreen Cemetery on the far eastern edge of the city, where he was buried beside his mother and the elaborate monument he had erected in 1913 to mark her grave. Mitchell’s biographer noted that he himself was buried under a “cheap, flat stone.”

For decades, no trace of the grave of this remarkable Richmonder remained as his tombstone had been destroyed or stolen. Indeed, all of Evergreen Cemetery, planned with such style and promise as the African American answer to Hollywood Cemetery, was today completely overgrown, vandalized, and desolate. Trees, weeds, and trash covered the last resting place of Mitchell’s contemporaries and friends and thousands of graves were lost in the woods. See the Shockoe Examiner article about the replacement of John Mitchell, Jr.’s grave marker.

You might very well ask where, in the City of Monuments, is our monument to John Mitchell, Jr., crusader for blacks when they most needed one, editor, banker, and tireless promoter of the rights of African Americans in this city. His banking business is long gone, his unidentified house moved from its foundations, his newspaper extinct and his very grave obliterated and covered with weeds for decades.


Unbelievably, for generations, the only monument that stood to this remarkable man was this small bent metal sign, nailed to a telephone pole beside his Mechanic’s Saving Bank Building, which he struggled for so long and so hard to build for the betterment of his race. This was our tawdry and pathetic memorial to John Mitchell, Jr.


It was only fairly recently that this has begun to change. A Virginia Highway Historical Marker was erected to Mitchell and stands today on Third Street, not far from his bank building.

It is all but impossible to condense the career and mindset of a man like John Mitchell, Jr. in a few lines in granite, but, with the cooperation of the Mitchell family, who managed to condense his life using biographical information, a quote from a contemporary African American newspaper, and a Bible verse. You can’t but help think Richmond’s Fighting Editor would be happy with the result.


The rise and decline of the entrepreneurial spirit that made Jackson Ward the unique neighborhood that it is can be traced in the architectural record, like drought and plenty in tree rings. John Mitchell, Jr.’s Mechanics’ Savings Bank is a largely forgotten achievement in Jackson Ward in the early 1900s.

Mitchell’s biographer, Ann Field Alexander, noted that “Mitchell was an avid reader of history, and he was keenly aware of the importance of monuments and what historians today call ‘memory.’” The memory of Richmond’s “Fighting Editor,” John Mitchell, Jr. and his times will continue to be an important component of the interest in African American history in Richmond. It seems that both John Mitchell, Jr. and his times will at last receive their due in the memory of our city.

- Selden Richardson.




HEK said...

Bravo, Selden! As usual, this historical commentary makes me want to go back and shake some sense into people -- especially Henry Beck.

Selden said...

Thanks, Harry. I'm afraid it is too late to get Mr. Beck straightened out, but there are plenty of modern Richmonders still above ground who could use a little shaking....

Unknown said...

Do we know if Mitchell Street off of Chamberlayne pkwy is named for John Mitchell?

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