William Isaac Mitchell

Respectability and Resource Hoarding in Jim Crow Columbus

By Shannon Evans
WI Mitchell_png


As part of a grant from the American Historical Association, Mt. Zion Memorial Fund Vice President Shannon Evans conducted a resource survey of African American cemeteries in Lowndes County, Mississippi. The county seat of Columbus contains a large cemetery called Sandfield Cemetery, which the city has owned since 1854, and it contains the graves of prominent African American citizens from the Reconstruction Era.

( To read her original blog post about Sandfield, please click HERE. Shannon has written several blog posts about the internments at Sandfield Cemetery, including about Columbus Alderman and Mississippi Senator Robert Gleed and “An Indescribable Calamity,” about the victims of a train wreck in 1904.)

This blog post tells the story of yet another obscure internment at Sandfield Cemetery, specifically a formerly enslaved Mississippian named William Isaac Mitchell who developed educational opportunities for the formerly enslaved and their children. He was also crucial in transforming the American Missionary Association school into Union Academy. The Columbus Dispatch also published an article about Mitchell and Union Academy in 2020 that also highlighted the 200th anniversary of Franklin Academy. HERE

American Missionary Association School

The Freedman’s Bureau was responsible for the management of all matters relating to the formerly enslaved after the Civil War. They operated hospitals and refugee camps, supervised labor contracts between planters and freedpeople, legalized marriages entered into during slavery, helped freedpeople reunite with their families, and assisted benevolent societies in establishing schools. In late 1865, the Bureau established the Freedman’s School in the former Wayside Hospital, which Confederates built on the southside of Columbus. The original building was commissioned for sick and dying Confederate and Union soldiers, and two additional buildings were built by occupational forces for their offices as well. The Freedman’s School was operated by the American Missionary Association (AMA).

In 1846, a group of abolitionists who had previously worked for the legal defense of the Amistad captives founded the AMA. Seizing upon opportunities as the Confederacy crumbled under the weight of freedom, the AMA began founding schools for the formerly enslaved people.  In 1866, the AMA began to create normal schools to train teachers in the school model of combining academic and industrial courses for students. The AMA felt strongly that providing African Americans a more complete education would provide not only economic independence but would assist them in their struggle for citizenship.

The Freedman's School in this 1871 Bird's Eye View of Columbus, Mississippi
The Freedman’s School in this 1871 Bird’s Eye View of Columbus, Mississippi
A graduating class at Union Academy in the early 1900s
A graduating class at Union Academy in the early 1900s

“White Liners Threaten Students”

The AMA school provided basic literacy education to the formerly enslaved, but it also served as a teacher training facility. Many whites living in Columbus did not believe that the formerly enslaved needed education, and some of them publicly voiced their criticisms shortly after the school opened. Since many freedpeople worked during the day and others were afraid of being seen attending classes, the AMA initially held at classes under the cover of darkness. 

Black Militancy and White Support

In April 1866, the school received a threatening letter. Thus, the Bureau increased their patrols at the school. The formerly enslaved even took up arms and setup up regular guard posts at the school. Some affluent white also lent their public support to Black education. Harrison Johnston, the owner of a cotton mill who served as provost marshal during Reconstruction, as well as former Governor James Whitfield, offered their public support, and local planter T. C. Billups and his wife even visited the school to seek guidance about starting a school for the formerly enslaved working on their plantation. 

The Vicksburg (MS) Herald, August 14, 1875.
The Vicksburg (MS) Herald, August 14, 1875.
Union Academy Fire 1898

Trial by Fire & Perseverance 

Despite having support across racial lines, the school was destroyed by a suspicious fire in January 1867. The night watchman even have his life in a failed effort to save the school. With the original buildings in ashes, the AMA moved across the street to the old Confederate barracks and the Freedman’s Chapel. White supporters soon raised $400 to build a new school, and the two-story framed schoolhouse was built facing 9th Avenue South.

1871 Senate Bill

In the spring of 1871, the Mississippi Senate proposed legislation to build a permanent normal school (training school for teachers) at the Columbus Female Institute (now MUW campus) and Columbus Union Academy. The school continued at the south side address for Black students and teachers in training under the AMA’s direction and was officially named Union Academy in 1874.

The Vicksburg (MS) Herald, Aug 8, 1875.
The Vicksburg (MS) Herald, Aug 8, 1875.

The White Liners, a group of white supremacists who supported the Democratic Party, began to put more pressure on local teachers of Black students. In 1877, the White Liners threatened white and Black educators alike with lynching if they continued educating local Blacks. The White Liners were also displeased that the school was used by the local republican clubs to meet. The AMA decided that the climate was too dangerous for their missionary teachers and administrators and withdrew their support from Lowndes County and handed the school over to Franklin Academy.

Union Academy circa 1903 (Photo courtesy of the Columbus Commercial)
Union Academy circa 1903 (Photo courtesy of the Columbus Commercial)

William Isaac Mitchell – First Principal of Union Academy

William Isaac Mitchell, a former teacher who trained under the AMA at the Freedman’s School, was appointed the first African American Principal of Union Academy in 1878. Little is known about his early life. We know that his enslaved mother, Mary, gave birth to a son named William Isaac Mitchell in Mississippi on December 18, 1855. He went on to earn degrees at Alcorn State and Central Mississippi College before joining the teacher training institute in Columbus. He was a Master Mason and a Grand Associate Patron of the Eastern Star Order. As principal of Union Academy, Mitchell added a high school curriculum in the early 1900s, and an 1915 article in the Lexington Advertiser dubbed Mitchell “the negro encyclopedia of East Mississippi.”

“Grand Lodge W.O.U. Big Negro Order at Lexington,” The Lexington (MS) Advertiser, September 3, 1915, p.7.

Segregated Teacher Training

Union followed the same calendar year as the white Columbus City school Franklin Academy, both schools held summer teacher institutes for four weeks to recruit and train new teachers for all Northeast Mississippi. These sessions were also held as a form of continuing education for existing faculty to promote new best practices. Expert speakers were brought in each day to lecture the attendees.

On September 1, 1895, the Columbus Dispatch reported that a continuing educaiton institute for white teachers would be held at Franklin Academy and led by Professor J. W. Johnson of Ole Miss. The “colored” institute was held at Union Academy and led by Professor Jones of Hazlehurst, Copiah County, MS. The events at Franklin Academy featured some presentations open to African Americans, but they had to sit in the “colored only” section of the gallery.

Register of Students at Union Academy from 1883-1903. For more information, please visit the Mississippi Digital Library

On November 23, 1898, Union Academy once again caught fire. The damage was minimal, but the students had outgrown their school building. The addition of a high school curriculum would once again demand a change of scene for African American children.

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Dec 12, 1899.
(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Dec 12, 1899.

Disfranchisement and Jim Crow

Not long after the burning of Union Academy, Mitchell submitted an editorial to the Jackson Clarion Ledger titled, “The Education of the Negro,” which highlighted the decision of white supremacists to disfranchise African Americans in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution. The revision to state laws stripped Black men of the right to vote through various means including literacy tests and poll taxes, and it led to a substantial rise in the lynching of African American men. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States also delivered it’s landmark decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which codified racial segregation into federal law and gave license to legislators in Mississippi to institute separate and unequal educational facilities to Black children.

The confluence of disfranchisement (voter suppression), racial segregation (white resource hoarding), and racial stereotyping (destructive lies about racial difference) ushered in the era of Jim Crow. African Americans such as Mitchell lacked a voice in politics. Thus, one of the only ways to push back against racial stereotyping was to embrace the politics of respectability, which demonstrated that African Americans were not incapable of attaining education, were not inherently criminals, and were not reverting to a savage state outside the institution of slavery. Mitchell’s work in education at Union Academy, as well as his leadership in numerous fraternal orders and editorials in white newspapers, demonstrated that African Americans could be as professional and as respectable as any white person in Mississippi. Yet, he carefully crafted his public demeanor along the boundaries of racial etiquette. One July 28, 1910 article in the Jackson Daily News, which covered a meeting of the Grand Eastern Star Lodge, claimed that Mitchell had made many white friends with his conservative manner, yet referred to his address as “pathetic” and refused to report on the specifics of his address.

White supremacist violence was always looming over the horizon for any African American who made too much money or in any way stepped out of line in Mississippi.

The new Union Academy building in 1903.
The new Union Academy building in 1903.

A New Symbol of Black Power

In 1901, the city of Columbus needed a new facility badly for Black children in Columbus, but the discussions about funding the new school were met with ugly editorials and contentious city council meetings. Many whites in Columbus resented their tax dollars going to fund “Negro education.” Thus, the city took no action to remedy the problem.

The responsibility of securing funds for Black education, therefore, fell to members of the Black community across from the fairground on 10th Ave North–a thriving, yet racially segregated, business and residential neighborhood made up of African Americans who worked in the nearby Brickyard or who owned a small businesses that catered to Black customers. The community featured the Black Masonic Lodge and the Queen City Hotel. Over time, prominent local Blacks purchased several acres of land and erected a multi-story building.

The community held a grand celebration to dedicate the new school on March 29, 1903. As many as one thousand community members and prospective students marched behind the Union Academy band, which played “Hallelujah, Tis Done” as they lead the way from 9th Avenue South to the corner of 10th Avenue North. The parade was led by Columbus Mayor J. T. Gunter, members of the city council, the school’s board of trustees and Professor Mitchell. Lots of speeches were delivered and the corner stone for the school was laid by M. W. Stringer Grand Lodge Colored Masons and E. W. Lampton, the Grand Master of the Mississippi Colored Masons, of Greenville. By 1906, over 500 students are enrolled at Union Academy attending grades 1-8.

White Janitors Payed Better than Black Teachers

By 1904, an estimated 2,000 white students attended two schools in Columbus (Franklin Academy, Grades 1-12 and Barrow Academy, Grades 1-8). Only 800 students were enrolled at Union Academy (Grades 1-12). Franklin Academy had an operating budget of $9,770 and Union’s budget was $2,600 (Columbus Weekly). By 1905, Union Academy also provided summer teacher training and continuing education courses for over 200 teachers across Northeast Mississippi.

In 1908, the salaries for the entire school district were reported in the Commercial Dispatch. The white female principal at Barrow Academy earned $900 annually, and Mitchell’s salary as principal of Union Academy was $600 annually. Whereas the average salary of white teachers was $540 annually, Black teachers only earned $180 per year–which was significantly less than the janitor at Franklin Academy, who earned $270 in the same year.

Union Academy Class of 1919 (Photo Courtesy of the Lowndes County Library Collections)
Union Academy Class of 1919 (Photo Courtesy of the Lowndes County Library Collections)

Community Respectability 

Professor Mitchell was constantly pushing back against the racial stereotypes during Jim Crow and providing a shining example of respectability and intellectual achievement for the Black community in Columbus. He was on the governing board of Union Guaranty and Insurance, which was founded in 1911 (Jackson Daily, August 31, 1911). He was on the board and served as President of the local Penny Saver Bank. He wrote articles and editorials that were published all over the state (Jackson Clarion Ledger, 1899). He was an active member of the Masonic Lodge at Gleed’s Corner as well as active member of his church.

After a brief battle with pneumonia, Mitchell died on March 6, 1916, and he was buried with full Masonic honors in his family’s plot at Sandfield Cemetery. The city built a second elementary school in his honor shortly after his death. Mitchell Elementary was built on the south side of town a few blocks from the former Wayside Hospital–where the first school for Black children in Columbus once stood. Mitchell Elementary served the children of south side from the 1920s through 2008. The original Union Academy building on the north side of town was finally replaced in 1962 with the current building and is still used to educate children in Columbus.

The headstone of W.I. Mitchell in Sandfield Cemetery
The headstone of W.I. Mitchell in Sandfield Cemetery