Trailblazers: Congressman Parren J. Mitchell (part 1)

Protesting segregated education and teacher-training programs. Paul Henderson. MdHS, HEN.00.A2-161 

Parren Mitchell (far left) protests with others outside of Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, July 1948. Image from the Paul Henderson Collection at the Maryland Historical Society.

In our previous posts about integration at the University of Maryland (part 1, part 2), we briefly mentioned Congressman Parren J. Mitchell, who was the first African-American student to take graduate classes at the College Park campus. This two-part post will briefly tell the story of the man who went on to become Maryland’s first black member of Congress.

The Mitchell Building was named in honor of Parren Mitchell's brother, Clarence Mitchell, Jr. in 1988.
The Mitchell Building was named in honor of Parren Mitchell’s brother, Clarence Mitchell, Jr. in 1988. (click for larger version)

Parren Mitchell was part of a civil rights legacy in Baltimore. His older brother, Clarence Mitchell, Jr, for whom the Mitchell Building on the College Park campus is named, was the chief lobbyist in Washington for the NAACP for nearly 30 years and was so ubiquitous on Capitol Hill that he was affectionately known as “the 101st senator”.

Clarence’s wife, Juanita, was the first African-American woman admitted to the bar in Maryland and was a lifelong civil rights activist. Juanita’s mother, Dr. Lillie Mae Carroll-Jackson, was the president of the Baltimore-area NAACP from 1935 until 1970.  Given his surroundings, it was little wonder that Parren would go on to become a central figure in the civil rights movement.

After returning home from World War II with a Purple Heart, Parren Mitchell attended Morgan State University, where he received his bachelor’s in Sociology.  As he looked to continue his education at the master’s level, he was recruited to be part of a series of test cases brought by NAACP lead counsel Thurgood Marshall and University of Maryland School of Law alumnus Donald Murray. Mitchell was joined in this litigation by Esther McCready, who sought to enroll in the UMD School of Nursing at Baltimore, and Hiram Whittle, who wanted to enroll as an undergraduate in the College of Engineering at College Park.

The telegram sent by President Byrd to all Board of Regents members indicating his course of action in the Mitchell case.
The telegram sent by President Byrd to all Board of Regents members indicating his course of action in the Mitchell case. (click for larger version). Retrieved from Presidents Papers Accession 94-85, “State Law Office, 1951”. 

Almost immediately after Mitchell’s lawsuit was filed, university president Harry Clifton Byrd sent a telegram to the Board of Regents of the university saying that Mitchell was to be admitted, and that classes would be set up especially for him in Baltimore. Byrd appears to have believed that this would prevent the lawsuit from progressing while maintaining the university’s policy of segregation.  The Baltimore City Court saw it differently, and issued a Writ of Mandamus on October 6, 1950, compelling the university to admit Mitchell as a full student at the College Park campus.

Mitchell entered the university later that fall, to seemingly little fanfare. There is no record of any outward upheaval among the student body or administration. This did not mean that the campus welcomed Parren with open arms, however. In a 1994 interview with the Outlook newsletter, Mitchell remembered that

“I took the bus to College Park and walked up that long, long hill. No one smiled at me. No one talked to me. One time, I went to the cafeteria, a big cavernous room, and as I walked past each table, the students got quiet. It was uncomfortable.”

Parren Mitchell finished his master’s degree in Sociology, with honors, in 1952. His thesis, which you can still find today in the Maryland Room, is titled “Negro Family Aspiration-Levels in an Urban Area”.

Graduation day was only the beginning for Mitchell, as we’ll see in our next installment.

On Tuesday, April 29th at 3:30pm, The Department of Sociology’s Critical Race Initiative will be hosting a symposium to discuss the legacy of Parren Mitchell. Find out more

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One thought on “Trailblazers: Congressman Parren J. Mitchell (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Trailblazers: Congressman Parren J. Mitchell (part 2) | Terrapin Tales

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