A black history collection with a surprising collector

Mark Mitchell holds a letter from Frederick Douglass about Sojouner Truth. Mark Mitchell holds a letter from Frederick Douglass about Sojouner Truth. (DA. Peterson)

Written by Lonnae O’Neal Parker

If the outside of Mark Mitchell’s small Fairfax townhouse seems unremarkable, the inside is more of the same. Galley kitchen, medium pile carpeting and a reproduction of a painting from Romare Bearden’s jazz series hanging in the TV room.

Nice enough, though nothing jumps out at you.

But get past that first, ordinary blush, and a few telltale signs — stronger rhythms — start to emerge. John Coltrane’s album cover of “A Love Supreme” hangs in the hallway. A Duke Ellington cover catches your eye, but Mitchell is gesturing to a framed letter nearby, and it is instantly distracting. It’s written in French. It’s dated 1802. It’s signed by Gen. Toussaint L’ouverture, the famed former slave who drove Napoleon out of Haiti. “I used to check books about Toussaint L’ouverture out of the library!” Mitchell enthuses before he practically skips downstairs to the basement.

Physically and psychically, you’re a beat or two behind. It’s not simply because Mitchell, 67, is quick on his feet, and talks fast and a lot, but because now old images and artifacts are jumping out at you all over the place.

And it is all starting to feel incredibly unlikely.

There’s a 1933 Negro league bat from the Pittsburgh Crawfords at the foot of the stairs, but it barely registers once you step into the closest room. Framed pieces of African American history — photos, letters, posters, playbills — cover nearly every inch of wall space, and rows of framed newspapers lean against one another in the closet, or they’re bound and piled two feet high from the floor.

There’s a 1952 I.O.U. for $3 from jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker, a 1955 letter to the director of the American Jewish Congress from future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and a 1967 letter stamped “Censored” and written by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There’s a picture from the 1939 New York Explorers Club signed by each white member and the lone black one, Matthew Henson, for whom it took 30 years to gain admittance and who, along with Robert Peary, discovered the North Pole.

Mitchell falls to his knees to demonstrate how he had begged for that one.

From every corner, the history thunders. Dances. Laughs out loud. It disturbs your peace. A poster offers: Reward, $50 for Charles, a Negro, who “absconded from the subscriber (without the least provocation).”

A headline screams: Sept. 21, 1925, Galveston Daily News, “Negro Burned at Stake by Mob.”

A clear, somber-looking picture of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass stares out from behind glass, accompanied by a signed letter, dated 1883. “I am glad you gave me the opportunity to say a timely word for the life and character of Sojourner Truth.” The handwriting is too small to decipher, but Mitchell knows it by heart. He has shown it to the many hundreds of visitors who’ve walked through his house and seen his collection, which spans more than 400 years and has consumed his life for the more than two decades.

“This is my favorite line,” Mitchell says. “ ‘She was a genuine specimen of the best qualities of the unmixed, uneducated children of Africa,’ ” he reads. “You know what this is?” he asks, his voice rising. “It says black is beautiful, baby! I got chills!” He practically cackles.

How did a white guy of modest means who grew up in Takoma Park amass one of the largest and most significant private collections of African American artifacts in the country, and become an unseen force in the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

He put his soul into it.

A letter written by Malcolm X to Elijah Muhammad in 1954. A letter written by Malcolm X to Elijah Muhammad in 1954. (D.A. Peterson)

A letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. from jail  in 1967. A letter written by Martin Luther King Jr. from jail in 1967. (D.A. Peterson)

Mitchell is in the kitchen making coffee when an e-mail comes in from Virginia Tech professor Paula Seniors, gushing. “Dear Dr. Mitchell. Thank you for your fantastic online collection!!! I am using it for my class on Reconstruction and the movie ‘Birth of a Nation.’ Thank you again.”

Mitchell doesn’t have a Ph.D. He calls himself a treasure hunter.

He graduated from the University of Maryland with a political science degree and history minor, and attended officer candidate school in Newport, R.I., becoming a naval officer in the late 1960s. He later joined the reserves and played in jazz bands — flute and saxophone — around Washington. His grandfather had been a well-known bandleader, and Mitchell began playing clarinet at age 9; his mother wanted him to be the next Benny Goodman. Mitchell was a passport officer with the State Department until 1975. The following year, while working as a full-time musician, he began collecting historic newspapers. His parents had been internationally known stamp collectors, and he had that same bug.

When he was younger, Mitchell collected baseball cards and stamps, then he switched to coins. He answered a hobby magazine ad: $10 for a Philadelphia newspaper from 1808. A fake, he thought. Newspapers don’t last that long. But he sent in the $10 anyway because he had checked out history books by the half-dozen from the Takoma Park library as a kid. Because “I love going back in time.” He got his newspaper. It was an original, printed on rag paper, which has no acid like the pulp in newsprint, which was used starting in the late 1800s. Rag paper can last for centuries.

If he bought newspapers for $10, he could sell them for $20, he reasoned, so he started a side business. He found a network of small dealers across the country. He bought and sold hundreds of newspapers. But he kept a few of the best ones for himself, the first drafts of history. His inventory included accounts of the Dred Scott Supreme Court case, Nat Turner’s slave revolt, the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1991, he met Terry Orr, then an H-back and tight end for Washington’s professional football team, through their mutual stockbroker. Orr bought an 1883 copy of Harper’s Weekly from Mitchell with Frederick Douglass on the cover, took it on the plane and showed a bunch of his teammates. Art Monk, Earnest Byner, Bobby Mitchell, Charles Mann. They started calling Mark Mitchell’s house.

Mann, a former all-pro defensive end, remembers helping to spread the word. “ ‘Hey, some guy has got a bunch of artwork and history of African Americans, and you might want to go see it,’ ” he recalls saying. “ ‘He lives in this townhouse ... and he’s got it on all three floors.’ I ended up letting everybody on the team who was African American know about it.”

“I would say, ‘There’s this Jewish guy who knows more about African American history than any of us put together. He’s got original pieces.’ Sometimes I wonder if he even knows what he has. It’s like he lifts something up, and it’s like, ‘Oh, look, here’s a letter from Booker T. Washington,’ and then he goes into this whole long dissertation about what, why, where, and it just blows you away.”

Mann has bought three pieces from Mitchell (costing more than $5,000 apiece), including another Harper’s Weekly with Frederick Douglass that hangs in his office. He brought people by Mitchell’s house for years.

After a while, “Art and Charles especially challenged me,” Mitchell says. “ ‘You know so much about our history,’ they said,   ‘Why don’t you consider building a collection?’ ”

Mitchell was already building a collection of jazz memorabilia. He had been reading “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America” by former Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett Jr. “I thought I knew a lot about black history, and I realized there had been a huge hole in my education.” Mitchell wanted to do something singular. He wanted to make the lessons in that textbook visceral. He had that pent-up love of history stretching back to childhood. Plus, “I knew how to collect,” Mitchell says.

His first piece was a pay document for a black soldier for the Revolutionary War. “Freemen signed up for the same reasons white soldiers did: adventure, money, land,” Mitchell says. He inhaled information.

He called dealers, auction houses, other collectors. Soon, they started calling him first. “You have to be first,” Mitchell says. He resolved: “If I’m going to build this collection, I’ve got to have a great reputation and make myself known to everyone that I’m building pieces. It’s like a puzzle.”

The most important piece of that puzzle would involve Phillis Wheatley, a young slave woman whose elegiac poetry marks the beginning of African American letters.

Mark Mitchell in the rented storage room where he keeps some of his African American artifacts. Mark Mitchell in the rented storage room where he keeps some of his African American artifacts. (D.A. Peterson)

For a project on the American Revolution, Mitchell once gave his 9-year-old daughter, Liz, a 224-year-old first edition of Wheatley’s poetry book for show and tell, and did his own mini-presentation to her class. Wheatley had been kidnapped from West Africa at about age 7, carried to Boston aboard the Phillis and bought by John and Susanna Wheatley, who found she excelled at reading, writing and languages, including Latin. Her first poem was published in 1767. Her book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published in 1773. She was freed, married a free black man and published more poems. She wrote a letter and poem to George Washington upon his appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Washington wrote back. She worked as a servant but had always been frail, and she died penniless, with her infant children, after her husband was imprisoned for debt.

In 1998, the manuscript department at Christie’s auction house in New York called Mitchell. The auctioneers thought they had a four-page Wheatley poem called “Ocean” and sent him a copy for authentication. He owned that Wheatley book and a few magazines with some of her published poems. He also found a 1779 newspaper ad listing poems to be included in her second book, which was never published. There was reference to a poem called “Ocean.” It had been considered lost.

Mitchell decided he wanted in on the auction. He did it anonymously, on the phone, in his basement. He doubted his chances but was willing to go as high as $175,000. He was prepared to take out a second mortgage on his 1988 townhouse. He waited silently on the line while two bidders dropped out, until there was only “me bidding against someone else.”

Mitchell bid $55,000; the other guy bid $57,500. Mitchell bid $60,000. That bid was met with silence. Tense moments passed. “I think he’s done,” the Christie’s auctioneer whispered into the phone. Mitchell held his breath.

“Fair warning!” Mitchell heard in the background. Then, “Sold!”

It remains the single most significant item in his collection.

A few years later, Mitchell met the wealthy New York manuscript dealer Seth Kaller, whom Mitchell had bid against for the poem, and asked him if he had dropped out because the poem wasn’t signed. When Kaller said he did, Mitchell asked if he had noticed the docket on one of the pages certifying: “Ocean. A poem by Phillis in her handwriting made on her return from England in Capt. Calef, Sept. 1773.” A signature would have been great, but this was all the authentication anyone would ever need.

Kaller offered Mitchell $225,000 there on the spot for it, but Mitchell refused.

“I thought every schoolchild in America should see this poem. From kindergarten to college. I thought if this little slave girl can write this poem, then you can do anything you want.” It’s always about showing the world the full range of African American history.

Besides, he says, it’s worth way more than $225,000.

A poster announcing a reward for a runaway slave named Charles in Virginia. A poster announcing a reward for a runaway slave named Charles in Virginia. (D.A. Peterson)

By the early 2000s, Mitchell’s collection had thousands of pieces, many of them singular: letters from Malcolm X to Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, and to biographer Alex Haley. Haley’s original contract for the book that became “Roots.” A 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series program signed by rookie of the yearJackie Robinson. An 18-karat gold 1961 Tiffany watch inscribed to John Coltrane with “Thanks” from Impulse Records.

Mitchell was a full-time collector and part-time musician.

“I’m ADD; multi-tasking and thoughts hit me,” he says. “It’s the same way I improvise in jazz. It’s how I think and how I put the collection together. Who in his right mind would think of even trying to build a collection that’s comprehensive?”

A twin obsession had taken hold: a passion not just to collect, but also to display. To call attention to his work anywhere he could find an audience. Word of mouth spread to school groups, church groups, individuals, historical societies. He invited people in and started taking pieces out.

He brought items to an exhibit at Washington’s historic Metropolitan AME Church, “and they let me sit in the Frederick Douglass Hall, below the sanctuary.”

The pastor said, “Look around; we are surrounded by our ancestors,” Mitchell recalls. The sanctuary grew silent; “letters, pictures, you could see them staring at you from the frames.”

Mitchell felt personally challenged by “the ancestors.” “What are you going to do now, they asked. Are you going to remember us? Are you going to teach the children?”

As he watched the legal wrangling after the contested 2000 presidential election, Mitchell says, he got a premonition and bolted upright on his couch. George W. Bush was going to win. He could see the president, “surrounded by people looking on,” signing a bill creating an African American history museum on the Mall.

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) had introduced legislation to establish a national African American museum during every congressional session since 1988, but it consistently failed to pass both houses of Congress. Mitchell, who had been following Lewis’s efforts since the mid-1990s, had begun to see his collection as a research archive and was becoming convinced it needed a national audience.

He thought he knew of a way to get it done. “I wanted to go to the Republican side,” Mitchell says.

The day after his premonition, he called the office of the lone black congressional Republican, Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.). Mitchell got 10 minutes with staffers. He brought in pieces from the collection. An original artifact “always changes the conversation. It makes everything more exciting, ” Mitchell says. He launched into his idea about how Watts could co-sponsor legislation for an African American history museum but was quickly cut off. “We’ll call this the Lewis-Watts bill,” he recalls a staffer saying.

I feel like an African American, it’s true.” Mark Mitchell

As a final piece of business, they needed a lobbyist to help get everyone on board. Mitchell volunteered that he knew a guy. And he hired him out of his own pocket.

Tom Downs, a lawyer with Patton Boggs, had met Mitchell at a victory celebration when Downs helped establish a memorial grove honoring Frederick Douglass in Anacostia. “Mark contacted me, and within a matter of weeks we were sitting down in John Lewis’s office,” Downs says.

There was a key meeting early in 2001 with Lewis, then-Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and staff for Watts and Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.). “It was sort of like giving a blessing to all of us working together,” Downs says.

“If you had met with Mark in 2001 and meet with him now, he’s got the same message: I want to do this for kids, for future generations. This needs to be on the Mall for everyone to see.”

The lobbying effort and legislation made its way through Congress.

In 2003, the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act was signed into law. In addition to Lewis, Watts, Brownback and Cleland, the bill had hundreds of co-sponsors. The museum’s groundbreaking was February 2012, and it is expected to open in 2015.

A picture from the bill’s introduction into the U.S. Senate shows Hillary Clinton at the lectern surrounded by recognizable and not-so-famous congressional faces. Just in the background is Mitchell with football players Mann and Monk beside him.

The credit for the museum appropriately goes to Lewis and the congressional sponsors, the donors who are raising $250 million of the half-billion-dollar museum, leaders of the Smithsonian and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie G. Bunch, and his staff, Tom Downs says. But “I don’t think that [Mitchell] has gotten the credit that he probably should have in terms of being the motivational person.”

“Mark was involved in John Lewis’s and my effort to establish legislation; I don’t question that,” Watts says. “My staff brought it to my attention that there was an effort underway for eight to 10 years” to get a museum built, “and I wanted to do it.”

“It would have been somewhat of a natural to enlist me, but I was surely unaware of his collection, and upon seeing it, I was flabbergasted,” Watts says. “I was somewhat blown away that this type of collection was under the auspices of an individual.”

Downs is now representing Mitchell in his efforts to sell the roughly 4,300-item collection, which Mitchell values at upward of $15 million, to the Smithsonian for inclusion in the museum. It’s an effort with some muscle behind it. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, met Mitchell through Charles Mann in the mid-2000s when he spent 31 / 2 hours viewing the collection at Mitchell’s house. Association President Domonique Foxworth, a former Baltimore Raven, has also bought pieces for his extensive civil rights collection from Mitchell. The Players Association has agreed to help the museum raise money to purchase the Mitchell collection.

Bunch says he’s impressed by Mitchell’s range and discernment. “He is interested in everything from music to sports and politics and antislavery, but he’s also got a collector’s eye, so he knows what’s important and valuable, and not just interesting.”

Bunch won’t say much about the museum’s efforts to acquire the collection or where it might end up. “All I can say is that collections like Mark Mitchell’s are extremely valuable and would enhance the collection of any museum it goes to.”

But Bunch acknowledges some of the early difficulty in getting the museum off the ground. One of the many questions that made “thinking about a national museum difficult is, is there really stuff to show?” he says. With so much already archived and in libraries, “Would private collectors share their material? [Mitchell] recognized that he had an opportunity to share what he’s passionate about and answer that question: Yes, there is material that could help this museum become established.”

“What I find fascinating is that most people forget that most major museums benefit from the almost idiosyncratic collecting of people like Mark Mitchell,” Bunch says. “He is an example of a tradition that is critically important to the success of museums. I think collectors by their very nature are people who care so much about a subject, and eventually they know more about it than any person who lived. That makes them knowledgeable. And a bit obsessive.”

In Mitchell’s case, it’s also something more, Smith says. He possesses a heartfelt love of the African American experience. “You feel that when you are with him.”

Alex Haley’s  1964 contract for the book “Roots.” Alex Haley’s 1964 contract for the book “Roots.” (D.A. Peterson)

A page certifying Phillis Wheatley’s poem 'Ocean' (1773). A page certifying Phillis Wheatley’s poem "Ocean" (1773). (D.A. Peterson)

An  Aetna slave insurance policy circa 1859. An Aetna slave insurance policy circa 1859. (D.A. Peterson)

John Coltrane's Tiffany gold watch from Impulse Records. John Coltrane's Tiffany gold watch from Impulse Records. (D.A. Peterson)

Mitchell has often fielded questions about where his affinity for black culture comes from.

“I think he just kind of fell in love with black history somewhere along the way,” says Nathan Mitchell, 28, who, along with his sister, Liz, grew up in Arlington visiting his dad every other weekend. “He did kind of grow up during civil rights time, and part of that just kind of gripped him.”

Nathan, a professional wedding photographer, and Liz, 25, a physical therapist in San Antonio, are white, as are all three of Mitchell’s ex-wives. Although Mitchell’s family was Jewish, every year they had a Christmas tree. “I don’t know what we were,” Mitchell says. He believed in God, “but none of us were practicing.” Eventually, his family became Christian. Mitchell was baptized Episcopalian about 1979. “We were just looking for something else, I think.”

His faith deepened. His love of jazz blazed. And sports. As he searched for pieces for the collection, he kept finding pieces of himself. His growing comfort and connection to the community he was immersing himself in felt as natural as anything he had ever known, until one day it felt like home.

“I feel like an African American, it’s true,” Mitchell says.

Alan Hermesch, who has known Mitchell since the early 1990s and has helped publicize the collection, nods. Hermesch is also white. After all, “black folks always used to know more about white folks” than whites knew about blacks, says Hermesch, who was the chief spokesman for Howard University for nearly two decades.

“I feel more comfortable at an event where there are, say, 200 African Americans than an event with 200 white people,” Mitchell says. “With whites, I see cliques, it’s harder to talk, whereas with black folks, I know just what to say. ... I know more African American history than most people in the room. I will meet everyone in the room, if it’s a room full of black people.”

“I’m joyful,” Mitchell says.

It’s something he has been able to translate.

There’s always been a special place reserved in black culture for the white people who get it. Who embrace black culture with all their heart. Call it the Teena Marie niche. It’s an acknowledgement of those whites who wanted to be black — or as close as they could come — when there seemed to be little future or reward in it.

Brett Fuller is pastor of Grace Covenant Churchin Chantilly, home to a number of NFL players. When he met Mitchell nearly 10 years ago, “I saw this gentle white man who had such a passion for our history,” Fuller says. “More than most African Americans. I thought, ‘Who are you and why?’ ”

Mitchell’s spirituality informed his passion, Fuller says, and his collecting. “He loved Jesus. He hoped our church would be a springboard to help educate the next generation to African American history.” Fuller says they talked about the spiritual aspects behind finding things that had been lost. “That the African Americans who had come before us had loved God.”

Mitchell has often played in the Grace Covenant band and, like others, Fuller is struck by Mitchell’s love of music. “I can’t speak to his struggle, and how he has identified with our struggle, but I think he was introduced to the African American sense of pain through jazz,” Fuller says. “R&B is about passion and love. Hip-hop is about, ‘We’re strong,’ but jazz is about our journey.”

Mitchell “found that rhythm of us as a people,” Fuller says. “We embrace him as if he were our brother.”

Mark Mitchell studying historical documents in his basement office in Fairfax. Mark Mitchell studying historical documents in his basement office in Fairfax. (D.A. Peterson)

Mark Mitchell playing his saxophone. He performs regularly. Mark Mitchell playing his saxophone. He performs regularly. (D.A. Peterson)

Three nights a week, Mitchell performs. On this nearly spring night, he’s doing his regular Wednesday gig with Tom Saputo at the now-shuttered Serbian Crown club in Great Falls.

As much as any other musical form, jazz builds on what came before it — by listening to the masters and letting them in, so you can take a piece of that sound and style, and make them your own.

As the band is swinging through “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Mitchell launches into a saxophone solo: a collection of notes never heard before. He is a half-step ahead of himself, and each note gives way to another. The music is his, but it is built on all the possibilities laid out by the titans of the sax in all the decades that came before — black artists, mostly, who created their own musical language and shared their creativity with those who could follow. Mitchell is an ardent follower and, as it turns out, a leader who answers to the call of their people.

His people.

Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@ washpost.com.

 
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