This Day in Black History: May 9, 1963

Arthur Wergs Mitchell, the first Black Democrat elected to Congress, died in Petersburg, Virginia.

Posted: 05/09/2013 08:30 AM EDT
Arthur Wergs Mitchell

Arthur Wergs Mitchell, a U.S. representative from Illinois, was the first African-American Democrat to be elected to Congress. He was a national force in Black politics until his death at his Virginia farm on May 9, 1963.

Mitchell, the son of former slaves, was born in Alabama on Dec. 22, 1883, and studied at Tuskegee Institute. He worked his way through college as a farm laborer and as an office boy for Booker T. Washington. Mitchell later practiced law in Washington, D.C., before moving to Chicago in 1929. He was elected to Congress in 1934 after defeating Black Republican incumbent Oscar De Priest.

Mitchell was in fact initially a Republican but switched parties based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal economic program. He served in the House for eight years. As the only Black member of Congress, he sometimes faced criticism that he didn't do more on behalf of his race, but he contended that he was there to represent the constituents in his district.

In 1937, however, after being booted from his first-class seat in a Pullman car to the section reserved for Blacks that he described as "filthy and foul smelling," he filed a complaint in the U.S. Supreme Court arguing for equal accommodations for Blacks and whites on interstate transportation. He won the case, but changes were not made until 1955.

Upon leaving the House, Mitchell lived in Petersburg, Virginia, where he resumed practicing law and was active in civil rights work until his death in 1963.

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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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