Cover image for The New Deal's Black congressman : a life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell
The New Deal's Black congressman : a life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell
Nordin, Dennis S. (Dennis Sven), 1942-
Publication Information:
Columbia, Mo. : University of Missouri Press, [1997]

Physical Description:
xiv, 320 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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E748.M63 N67 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this fascinating biography, Dennis S. Nordin chronicles the life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell, the first black Democrat to be elected to Congress. Although he is now one of history's forgotten figures, Mitchell was once almost as well known among black college students as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Nordin, however, shows that Mitchell's achievements and thus his fame were the direct result of his dishonorable deeds.

Mitchell's life began humbly in rural Alabama in 1883. After a memorable boyhood, he studied briefly at Tuskegee Institute, which had a major effect on Mitchell's outlook. He went on to study law in Washington, D.C., and thereafter became involved in politics when the Republicans sent him to Chicago in 1928 to campaign for Herbert Hoover. Impressed by Chicago's ward system and patronage politics, he returned to the city and made a bid for a congressional seat, changing political parties in an effort to oust black Republican Congressman Oscar DePriest. To accomplish this, Mitchell resorted to "Uncle Tomming," ingratiating himself with the white bosses of the Chicago Machine.

Within five years a Machine nomination was in hand, and Mitchell found himself owing his political success and thus his loyalty to the Chicago Machine. Because he was under strict orders from Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly not to cause problems or be confrontational, Mitchell rarely, if ever, supported the interests of his constituents.

It was only in the later years of his political career that Mitchell began to show opposition to his Machine backing. He had been an opponent of the NAACP in his first years in Congress, but later became a strong supporter of an NAACP antilynching bill. In 1937, Mitchell sued three railroad companies for not offering equal treatment and accommodations for all passengers. The case went to the Supreme Court, which gave Mitchell a favorable ruling. As a result of these "confrontational" acts, the Chicago Machine quickly decided not to endorse Mitchell in the elections of 1942.

In his research, Nordin relies on such primary sources as manuscripts, newspapers, and court records, as well as information from interviews with Mitchell's friends, neighbors, colleagues, political rivals, and widow. Woven tightly together, these sources form a narrative that reveals a most complex and intriguing individual, a man whose political and moral views and acts were strongly linked to the goals of the great Chicago political Machine.

Author Notes

Dennis S. Nordin, a resident of Sweden, is the author of Rich Harvest: A History of the Grange, 1867-1900.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Arthur Wergs Mitchell is virtually unknown today, but was once among the best-known African Americans. Born in Alabama and educated briefly at Tuskegee Institute, Mitchell started several schools in that state, usually for questionable motives, before he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1919 to study and practice law. From there, he traveled to Chicago to campaign for Herbert Hoover in 1928. That experience led him to live in Chicago because of political opportunities the city offered. He decided that his ambition could best be fulfilled by membership in the Democratic Party. After his political conversion, Mitchell became a tool of the white Democratic machine in Chicago, which elected him to the US House of Representatives in 1934. Mitchell thus became the first African American Democrat member of that chamber. He served in the House until 1943, when machine leaders decided that he was no longer useful to them. Nordin recognizes that Mitchell is a difficult character about whom to write. He maintains, however, that Mitchell's career demonstrates how far an African American could go by "selling out" to a white power structure that did not really care about helping racial minorities. General readers; graduate students; faculty. J. P. Sanson; Louisiana State University at Alexandria