Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Jim Mitchum

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James Arthur Mitchum
BornJames A. Mitchum
1888
Spartanburg, South Carolina, U.S.
Died1966
NationalityAfrican American
Other namesJim
OccupationChauffeur-mechanic, farmer, interviewee for the Federal Writers Project

Overview[edit]

Jim Mitchum was an African American mechanic who narrowly escaped a lynching and later served as an interviewee for the Federal Writers Project.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

Jim Mitchum was born on November 4th, 1888 on a cotton plantation in between Inman and Welfford in Spartanburg County, South Carolina[1]. His father Alfred Mitchum died when he was thirteen, leaving him in charge of his siblings as the eldest of ten children. After his father's death, a new figure which he referred to as the "Yankee Man" -- his boss at Outman Mills, became something of a father figure to him. This relationship led Mitchum to continue work at the Mill[2].

Professional Life[edit]

Mitchum initially worked at Outman Mills overseeing the African American workers. He worked in the mill-yard and the gins, and learned mechanic's skills by working on the mill machinery. After spread of the automobile, he moved to the North and applied these skills as a chauffeur-mechanic. In 1931, his employer in Illinois began losing money and fired him, so Mitchum started working odd jobs and farming[3].

Near-Lynching[edit]

In the summer of 1924, a drunk white man assaulted Mitchum’s sister Josephine. Mitchum ran to her defense while she went to call for the police. When the police arrived, they saw a black man fighting a white man and assumed Mitchum was the aggressor. One policeman pulled out a gun on Mitchum, and Mitchum attacked him with a knife, eventually taking him as a hostage and retreating to a doctor’s office. Mitchum knew that he was cornered and that a mob was quickly assembling outside, so to avoid getting lynched he persuaded the police chief to take him to the jail. Later, Mitchum’s employer paid his bail and got a lawyer to defend him in court. The jury found him guilty, but the judge gave him a suspended sentence and fine with the reasoning that Mitchum was being discriminated against by the jury[4].

Later Life[edit]

Mitchum married Flora (maiden name Rookard) in 1913 and moved with her to Hendersonville, North Carolina (date unknown). Mitchum participated as an interviewee in the Federal Writers Project in 1939, by which point the two had six children. He died on April 5th, 1966 in Hendersonville and was buried there in Oakdale Cemetery[5].

Social Issues[edit]

Lynching in the American South[edit]

An African American man killed by hanging in a lynching in 1925

Lynching refers to "an act of violence perpetrated out of racial animosity, fueled by a mob mentality that is quick to ascribe guilt outside the bounds of due process."[6]. Experts estimate that between the end of the Reconstruction era and the start of the Great Depression, Southern mobs lynched over 2400 African American men, women and children. These acts of terrorism served to control the black population, reduce black economic and political competition with whites, and to solidify white class structure. Among the reasons given for black lynchings are incest, rape-murders, burglary, terrorism and fraud, as well as such non-crimes as “acting suspiciously,” insulting a white man, trying to vote, courting a white woman, “unpopularity,” and “demanding respect”.[7] While lynching is a form of vigilantism (therefore extralegal), it garnered considerable popular support "when the target of the mob was accused of sexually violating a white woman."[8] Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases" that South has excused itself of some of its most terrible lynchings by "shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women."[9]

African American Labor in the South[edit]

In the early 1860s, when the American labor movement was still getting on its feet, most labor unions barred African Americans from membership. Some organizations like the Knights of Labor (founded 1869) were more inclusive, but at a certain point African American workers started to form their own unions -- notably the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (founded 1925). World War I brought opportunities for equal employment opportunity, but this ended abruptly with the end of the war[10] When the Great Depression hit -- and it hit African Americans harder than most other Americans, New Deal public works programs intended to alleviate widespread unemployment would often hire African Americans only as unskilled labor. Some projects, particularly in primarily white areas, were completely closed to African American workers. Disappointment with President Roosevelt and his cabinet underscored the importance of allying civil rights activism with the labor movement; president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters A. Philip Randolph encouraged the American Federation of Labor -- a vast union network with a host of affiliated sub-unions -- to work total racial equality and unity into its policy and structure, though he was largely unsuccessful[11] It would be organizations like the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO, founded 1935-38) and the labor demands of World War II in the next decade that would bring "a more egalitarian brand of unionism to the South and increased hopes of working-class alliances among whites and blacks."[12]

Notes[edit]

  1. Ancestry.com, “James Arthur Mitchum” in “North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976.” Accessed March 23, 2016.
  2. Mitchum, James. Interview with Frank Massimino. Federal Writers’ Project Papers. Hendersonville, 1939.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ancestry.com, “James Arthur Mitchum” in “North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976.” Accessed March 23, 2016.
  6. New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 19: Violence, s.v. “Lynching.”
  7. Jana Evans Braziel, “History of Lynching in the United States,” U. Massachusetts, accessed March 21, 2016, https://www.umass.edu/complit/aclanet/USLynch.html.
  8. New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 19: Violence, s.v. “Lynching.”
  9. Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases (1892; Project Gutenberg, 2005), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htm?utm_content=bufferb38d0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#THE_BLACK_AND_WHITE_OF_IT.
  10. New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 20: Social Class, s.v. “Race and Labor, since 1865.”
  11. Stephen Brier, ed. "Who Built America?" Vol. 2: "From the Gilded Age to the Present." (New York: Pantheon Book, 1992).
  12. New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 20: Social Class, s.v. “Race and Labor, since 1865.”

References[edit]

Ancestry.com. “James Arthur Mitchum” in “North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976 [database on-line].” Provo, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Braziel, Jana Evans. “History of Lynching in the United States.” U. Massachusetts, accessed March 21, 2016, https://www.umass.edu/complit/aclanet/USLynch.html

Brier, Stephen, ed. "Who Built America?" Vol. 2: "From the Gilded Age to the Present." New York: Pantheon Book, 1992.

Massimino, Frank. “An Irascible Negro.” Hendersonville, 1939. In the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, U. North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Wells, Ida B. "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases." 1892. Project Gutenberg, 2005. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14975/14975-h/14975-h.htm?utm_content=bufferb38d0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#THE_BLACK_AND_WHITE_OF_IT

Wilson, Charles R., James G. Thomas Jr., and Ann J. Abadie, eds. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 19: Violence. Edited by Amy Louise Wood. Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina, 2011. S.v. “Lynching.”

Wilson, Charles R., James G. Thomas Jr., and Ann J. Abadie, eds. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 20: Social Class. Edited by Larry J. Griffin and Peggy G. Hargis. Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina, 2011. S.v. “Race and Labor, since 1865.”