William A. Mitchell was born on February 26, 1856, to James and Charlotte Mitchell of Richmond, Virginia. According to the 1860 census, William’s father was absent in his early life; he, his mother, and one of his brothers are the only residents listed at their house. The fact that the Mitchells appear in the census at all is remarkable, because it means they were almost certainly free before the Civil War. Richmond’s population in 1860 totaled 37,910; 11,739 of those people were enslaved; just 2,576 were free people of color.
While a few of the Mitchells’ close neighbors in 1860 were African American, for the most part their neighborhood seems to have been a working-class white one, with neighbors including a couch maker and a lumber merchant. No address is provided in the census, but Freedman’s Bank records from 1870 and 1872 place the Mitchells on N. 5th Street, in what was then Navy Hill. That neighborhood would in time become a thriving African American community before bulldozers rolled in, beginning in the 1950s.
Records indicate that William and his two brothers, Samuel and Christopher, attended school. William put this education to good use by becoming a teacher, which was his vocation for over 20 years. He taught at the Valley School, at 15th and Marshall Streets, across from the city jail. His wife, Kate Harris (b. 1870), was also a teacher. They were married on February 18, 1897, when he was nearing 41 and she was 27. The Richmond Planet, reporting on their wedding, says that she drew attention for her “graceful appearance” and that his “commanding physique” was no less striking. It also remarks that William and Kate were not the only educators getting married—there was great “hymenial jubilation” among schoolteachers at the time. William and Kate remained together for ten years before she passed away; sadly, they had no children who survived infancy.
William’s involvement in the religious community was noteworthy. He was the president of the local Baptist Sunday School Union and eventually received a preaching license. According to the Richmond Planet, he and several others heeded the call after the Rev. James H. Holmes, the pastor of First African Baptist Church (the oldest black church in Richmond, founded in 1841), urged the gifted young men of his congregation to pursue the ministry in 1900. The importance of this community is evident even in his living arrangements: After Kate’s death in 1907, William moved in with his brother- and sister-in-law, the Rev. Richard J. Bass, pastor of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church, and Rosetta F. (Harris) Bass. He lived with them, at 15 East Duval Street, for the remainder of his days.
In addition to his religious devotion, William’s life was also marked by an interest in the arts, especially poetry. The Richmond Planet records his presence at the Grand Opening Recital of the Richmond Musical and Dramatic Association in 1895, and notes that he gave such an emotional poetic recitation that the audience demanded an encore—a demand he met with Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
William died on November 13, 1920, having lived for all 64 years of his life in Richmond. His resting place is with his wife in East End Cemetery. They are commemorated together on a four-sided monument, a truncated obelisk. Its arched top points heavenward, perhaps symbolizing the entry to eternal life. Carvings of crowns and wreaths allude to the final victory over sin and death. Besides giving his name, date of birth, and date of death, the inscription says that he “entered into eternal rest.”
By UR student Calvin Reedy, fall 2017, with additional research by Erin Hollaway Palmer, April 2018
- Born: 26 February 1856
- Died: 13 November 1920
- Birth Place: Richmond, Virginia
- Death Place: Richmond, Virginia
- Spouse: Kate (Harris) Mitchell
- Parents: James Mitchell, Charlotte —
- Children: n/a
- Other Family:
- Occupation: Teacher, Valley School
- Church: First African Baptist Church
- Address: 917 North Fifth Street
- Documents: Census (1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920); death certificate; Freedman's bank record; marriage record; Richmond Planet articles
- Military Service: