top of page
  • Emmanuel Mehr

Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Virginia Jackson Kiah, and the Baltimore City-Wide Young People’s Forum

BHW 39: October 28, 2023

A photograph of red brick three-storey rowhouses, taken from the street. The house in the center has its door and windows boarded.
Figure 1. Eli Pousson, “Juanita Jackson and Clarence Mitchell, Jr. House, 1324 Druid Hill Avenue,” 2018, Baltimore Heritage, public domain [1].

 

In 1931, Black Baltimoreans Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah returned to Baltimore after completing their undergraduate studies in Philadelphia. The Great Depression was wreaking havoc on all American job markets. The two sisters identified this immediate problem facing young people trying to enter the workforce and went to work building a solution. Juanita recalls, “In ’31 Virginia and I both graduated and we couldn’t get jobs… So, we organized a group of young people, both high school and college graduates who couldn’t get jobs either. We started meeting at Sharp Street Methodist Church and we called it the City-Wide Young People’s Forum.” [2] This Black Baltimorean youth organization was about much more than employment prospects. It became a space for discussing and solving shared problems. It also reinvigorated the civil rights movement in Baltimore for youth and adults alike. With the assistance of their mother Lillie Carroll Jackson, who would become president of the Baltimore NAACP in 1935, Juanita and Virginia created the Forum as a hub of activist activity. It held two-hour meetings on Friday evenings from 1931 to 1938 with consistently stellar attendance by Baltimoreans aged sixteen to twenty-four. [3] As Virginia makes clear, the Forum was: “My idea! Not Juanita’s idea, my idea.” [4] However, it was Juanita who brought the organizing and speaking experience requisite for facilitating the Forum’s success. [5] The Forum made clear the commitment of young Baltimoreans to social betterment, most impactfully through its regular speaker series, its role in the Buy Where You Can Work campaign, and its contributions to the anti-lynching struggle.


The phenomenal guests featured for the speaker portion of the Forum’s Friday meetings from the start provided immediate clout and credibility in civil rights circles. In 1932, the Afro-American reported: “The City-Wide Young People’s Forum… are bringing to the city this year such outstanding speakers as Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the Crisis; Mrs. Mary Bethune, president of Bethman-Cookman Institute, Daytona Beach, Florida; Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University,” and others. [6] High-profile speakers accepted invitations to speak almost from the Forum’s inception in October 1931. [7] Listening attentively to the guests, Black Baltimorean youth absorbed the latest in civil rights thinking. They then found ways to relate this to their own lives, and organized initiatives to work towards making civil rights ideas a reality in their communities. Parren J. Mitchell, who later became the first African American from Maryland elected to the United States Congress, attended the Forum’s meetings from a young age. He recalls, “Although I was very young at that time, I was old enough to understand exactly what was being said in terms of the discrimination, the racism.” [8] Indeed, even if some of the most complex concepts articulated by speakers went over the heads of the youngest listeners, the overall problem of racist discrimination was resoundingly clear.


While the Forum’s guest speakers were impressive, it was the group’s ability to convert conversations into assertive social action that fueled its civil rights contributions. As historian Andor Skotnes writes, “Most significantly, the educational process at the Friday night meetings was not a passive one; increasingly, the meetings became a springboard for social action. After each presentation, the floor was opened to discussion… a vote was often taken at the end to express a majority opinion and, increasingly, to choose a course of action.” [9] That Forum leaders understood the pivotal importance of social action in this work is reflected in their willingness to cancel or adjourn meetings so that attendees could attend protests. [10] Forum leaders demonstrated a continued commitment to nonviolence and democracy. Yet, to some observers the group was radical. Juanita credits her mother Lillie with securing mainstream acceptance for “the so-called radical activity of a group of about 200 to 500 young people in the heart of this northwest Baltimore ghetto [sic].” [11] Lillie Carroll Jackson’s emphasis on middle-class respectability, mainstream religion, and overall moderation tempered some of the Forum’s perceived threat to the city’s white power structures. [12] However, the very idea of thousands of young Black Baltimoreans gathering to demand change was radical in a society ordered by racial inequities.


The Forum greatly contributed to Baltimore’s Buy Where You Can Work campaign in 1933. Juanita explains this initiative: “It was a boycott. We started a boycott in connection with a young man who was called Prophet Costonie… He came into the Forum and he proposed a Buy Where You Can Work Campaign, and we adopted it in the Forum.” [13] This example shows how grassroots ideas floated at meetings turned into revolutionary social actions. Costonie told the Forum it was unacceptable that the white-owned stores in Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods, specifically the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, refused to employ any Black staff. The Forum agreed. [14] He worked as a faith healer and sought to use his religious thinking to better the social conditions of his listeners. [15] This fit with the religious inclinations of the Forum, which held its meetings in Black churches. Similar anti-discriminatory employment campaigns had already achieved some success in other major cities such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit. The Baltimore boycott especially targeted the Great Atlantic and Pacific Stores (A&P) chain and began on November 18, 1933. By December, the A&P accepted the Forum’s demands and hired thirty-eight young Black men. [16] According to Juanita, this campaign was the first major public activist campaign in Baltimore during her lifetime (1913-1992). [17]


Also in the fall of 1933, the lynching of George Armwood in Princess Anne, Maryland, brought the Forum directly into the anti-lynching struggle. These anti-lynching efforts developed at roughly the same time as the Buy Where You Can Work campaign. The Forum was bustling that October, with members moving between the different demonstrations. [18] Armwood was taken from Baltimore by his killers a few days before the lynching, providing a firm Baltimore basis for the case. As one observer told the Afro-American, “‘When they took that boy away from Baltimore Tuesday, I knew it would happen… He was safe here. Why couldn’t they leave him here?” [19] It seems the murderers knew about Baltimore’s relative lower tolerance for racial violence, deciding to take Armwood to a more rural part of Maryland to carry out the lynching. By continuing to emphasize the urgency and importance of the case for Baltimoreans, Forum leaders made clear the state-wide and national relevance of the social issues involved.


The Forum directly entered the national civil rights stage through its support of the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill. Regular forum attendee Thurgood Marshall had become a practicing Baltimore lawyer during the same October as the Armwood lynching. [20] In response to this case, he spearheaded the legal campaign for the emergent bill. Juanita Jackson, together with Forum vice president Clarence Mitchell, Jr., and Marshall’s mentor Charles Houston, testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing on the bill on February 21, 1934. In addition to her testimony, Juanita presented Sen. Edward Costigan (D-CO) with a supporting petition signed by thousands of Maryland residents. [21] This Forum delegation spoke specifically about the Armwood case, how it was interpreted by Forum members, and how it necessitated the passage of the bill. [22] This bill was drafted in 1934 but in 1935 it failed to draw sufficient congressional support, never reaching the Senate floor. [23] Nevertheless, this is a remarkable example of the ideas presented at the weekly Forum meetings making their way onto the national legislative stage through Forum leadership.


The Forum also had a remarkable impact on the resurgence of the Baltimore NAACP branch. The group attempted to incorporate Black Baltimoreans from all socio-economic backgrounds, and this approach would later prove vital to the growth of the Baltimore NAACP overall. [24] This cross-class emphasis was also reflected in the Forum’s chosen primary initiatives, as both employment discrimination and lynching impacted all Black Baltimoreans. [25] The group’s activist momentum then provided fuel for massive NAACP membership drives starting with Lillie Carroll Jackson’s assumption of the branch presidency in 1935. [26] As Skotnes argues, “the Forum… had in two short years become the most active and effective freedom organization in the African American community of Baltimore.” [27] Its great success was infectious for adult activists and the branch overall. Many Forum veterans also became highly involved in the local branch once they reached adulthood or as the Forum fizzled starting in 1938, whichever came first. [28]


The City-Wide Young People’s Forum revitalized the Black freedom movement in Baltimore City during the 1930s. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Virginia Jackson Kiah, Lillie Carroll Jackson, and other leaders built a firm activist foundation for the future of the Baltimore NAACP branch through the Forum. Most specifically its speaker series, its Buy Where You Can Work efforts, and its anti-lynching response to the murder of George Armwood made clear Baltimore’s commitment to social change. When Juanita Jackson Mitchell left Baltimore in 1935 to work as a special assistant to NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White at the association’s national office, the Baltimore Black freedom movement was booming. The contrast between this and the stagnant movement that greeted her and her sister back from college in 1931 is striking. In the September 1935 issue of the Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, a story reported on Juanita’s move to the national office. It stated: “Miss Jackson is best known as the founder and president of the City-Wide Young People’s Forum of Baltimore, which holds meetings throughout the winter, regularly attracting audiences of 1,500 to 2,000 persons.” [29] This is correct but understates the Forum’s significance in forging local and national change. The Forum stopped meeting weekly in the late 1930s and became a more sporadic entity. Yet, its role in building the modern Baltimore NAACP branch is unmistakable. By 1939, Baltimore had the second-largest branch in the country, second only to Detroit. [30] In the latter half of the 1930s, Juanita continued to stoke youth enthusiasm and involvement through her national NAACP roles. This will be the focus of next week’s feature article.

 

[1] Eli Pousson, “Juanita Jackson and Clarence Mitchell, Jr. House, 1324 Druid Hill Avenue,” photograph (Baltimore, MD, September 26, 2018), Baltimore Heritage, public domain, https://flic.kr/p/28GXQrE.

[2] Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah, “Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah interview, 1975,” by Charles Wagandt, July 15, 1975, McKeldin-Jackson Project Oral History Collection (hereafter MJOHC), H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture (Baltimore, MD), 40, https://www.mdhistory.org/resources/juanita-jackson-mitchell-and-virginia-jackson-kiah-interview-1975/.

[3] Prudence Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs Is a ‘Brainy and Energetic Woman’: A Study of Female Charismatic Leadership in Baltimore,” in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, eds. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodward (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 55, https://archive.org/details/wanttostartrevol0000unse; Genna Rae McNeil, “Youth Initiative in the African American Struggle for Racial Justice and Constitutional Rights: The City-Wide Young People’s Forum of Baltimore, 1931-1941,” in African Americans and the Living Constitution, eds. John Hope Franklin and Genna Rae McNeil (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 60, https://archive.org/details/africanamericans00fran.

[4] Virginia Jackson Kiah, “Virginia Jackson Kiah interview,” by Leroy Graham, 1976, MJOHC, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture (Baltimore, MD), 12, https://www.mdhistory.org/resources/virginia-jackson-kiah-interview/.

[5] Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah, “Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah interview, 1975,” 41.

[6] “CITY WIDE FORUM TO HAVE MANY SPEAKERS,” Afro-American (Baltimore, MD), September 17, 1932, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=--cmAAAAIBAJ&sjid=BgMGAAAAIBAJ&pg=2958%2C544620.

[7] McNeil, “Youth Initiative in the African American Struggle for Racial Justice,” 75.

[8] Parren J. Mitchell, “Parren J. Mitchell interview,” by Susan Conwell, August 12, 1976, MJOHC, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture (Baltimore, MD), 1, https://www.mdhistory.org/resources/parren-j-mitchell-interview/.

[9] Andor Skotnes, A New Deal for All?: Race and Class Struggles in Depression-Era Baltimore (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 80-81, Kindle edition.

[10] Larry S. Gibson, Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice (New York: Prometheus Books, 2012), 159, https://archive.org/details/youngthurgoodmak0000gibs.

[11] Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah, “Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah interview, 1976,” by Charles Wagandt, January 10, 1976, MJOHC, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Center for History and Culture (Baltimore, MD), 2, https://www.mdhistory.org/resources/juanita-jackson-mitchell-and-virginia-jackson-kiah-interview-1976/.

[12] Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs Is a ‘Brainy and Energetic Woman,’” 59.

[13] Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah, “Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah interview, 1975,” 42.

[14] C. Fraser Smith, Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 81, https://archive.org/details/hereliesjimcrowc0000smit.

[15] Gibson, Young Thurgood, 156.

[16] McNeil, “Youth Initiative in the African American Struggle for Racial Justice,” 65-66.

[17] Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah, “Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Virginia Jackson Kiah interview, 1975,” 43.

[18] Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 140.

[19] “Baltimore Folk Expected Eastern Shore Lynching,” Baltimore Afro-American, October 21, 1933, 3, https://books.google.com/books?id=J3Q9AAAAIBAJ.

[20] Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (New York: Times Books, 1998), 72, Kindle edition.

[21] Gibson, Young Thurgood, 31-32.

[22] Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 188.

[24] Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs Is a ‘Brainy and Energetic Woman,’” 50.

[25] Thomas L. Bynum, “‘We Must March Forward!’: Juanita Jackson and the Origins of the NAACP Youth Movement,” The Journal of African American History 94, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 494, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25653975.

[26] Cumberbatch, “What ‘the Cause’ Needs Is a ‘Brainy and Energetic Woman,’” 50.

[27] Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 69.

[28] David Taft Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South: Confronting Jim Crow in Baltimore before the Movement (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2019), 76, Kindle edition.

[29] “Juanita Jackson to Join N.A.A.C.P. National Staff,” Crisis, September 1935, 272, https://archive.org/details/sim_crisis_1935-09_42_9.

[30] Skotnes, A New Deal for All?, 270.

Commentaires


bottom of page