Leaving a Legacy of History for Generations

 

Christine Mitchell:

Leaving a Legacy of History for Generations

By: Anita Paul

Christine Mitchell with articles from collection

Christine Mitchell Displays a Small Sampling of Her Expansive Collection 

 

Like most mothers, Christine Mitchell wanted to teach her two daughters their worth by teaching them their history. So in the late 1980's, she embarked on a journey that would lead her to some unlikely places, particularly for a petite African American woman from Augusta, Georgia. The result would be an impressive collection of 19th century newspapers depicting the lives of African American slaves and notable abolitionists. 

Slavery and Freedom in Black and White christine mitchell museum exhibit

Mitchell's "Slavery and Freedom in Black and White" Museum Exhibit

 

The exhibit, featuring her newspaper collection, “Slavery and Freedom in Black and White,” debuted in May of 2011 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at Atlanta. This remarkable achievement began not as a goal, but as the result of one woman’s mission to instill pride and self-respect into her children.

Leaving a Legacy

Mitchell was not only mother to her two daughters, but she also served as their grandmother since both ancestors had passed by the time the girls were born. “I wanted to leave them a legacy,” she says. “It was about teaching them the importance of their history while teaching them the value of themselves. I could leave them money to fight over, or I could leave them a part of their history.” 

Slave quarters restored

Restored Slave Quarters 

 

Mitchell not only taught her girls their history through books and photos, she took it to another level by getting them physically involved. As she learned of the lives of African Americans throughout history, she joined groups that participated in historical re-enactments. She and her daughters dressed in period costume and depicted slaves and servants alongside others depicting landowners and settlers. Although her girls did not understand at the time what their mother was doing, they learned history by living it, and soon discovered that not all of their classmates knew as much as they did about American history.

Mitchell, herself, gained an appreciation for history as a volunteer at the Herndon Home,   a mansion built by Alonzo Franklin Herndon, a former slave who became one of the nation’s wealthiest black men in the early 20th century. It now stands as an archives and house museum in Atlanta. “I volunteered there for many years as a way of teaching myself, first how to present information to people and then how to preserve documents,” she says. 

Christine Mitchell and Michael Henderson displaying her 1855 copy of Fredrick Douglass’ “My Bondage and My Freedom”

Her love of black history led her to create a traveling exhibit featuring research she gathered on patents by black inventors. She made presentations to schools and libraries across Georgia, sharing her discoveries with eager young students.

History in Black and White

Soon, Mitchell’s research of black inventors shifted to discovering documents, books, and other printed material by and about African Americans. In her travels, she gained an appreciation for the value of black memorabilia, became familiar with certain historic names and figures, and began attending gun shows and confederate shows on weekends to hunt for treasures. “I had to be open minded,” she says. “I didn’t know what I would find.” 

Confederate shows are the last place one would think to find a petite black woman, but there was Mitchell among the crowd. “I refused to allow that [confederate] flag to stop me from walking through those doors,” she says. Noting that all eyes would be on her as she walked through the trade show doors, she was undeterred by the stares. Instead, she searched for gems, learned to decipher the authenticity of documents and to estimate their value; another skill she attributes to her training at the Herndon Home. 

Over years of attending trade shows, Mitchell purchased vintage books -- the likes of an 1855 copy of Fredrick Douglass’ “My Bondage and My Freedom” -- as well as newspapers mentioning runaway slaves, or printed editions which included the writings of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “I had to put everything on layaway. It was a chance I took with my grocery money that I was pinching,” she says of her early days of purchasing the valuable documents from strangers at trade shows. She bought from white men mostly, none of whom she knew, and some with whom she negotiated strictly by phone. Yet, in all of her transactions, she says, “I never got burned. I never got cheated.”

A Sketch from a Period Newspaper Article in Mitchell's Collection Depicting African American Civil War Soldiers

Searching for information about creating a new traveling exhibit for her documents, Mitchell reached out to the National Archives in Washington, DC, which referred her to its regional location in Atlanta. After describing her unique collection, the staff invited her to bring samples for their review, and they quickly discovered that she was sitting on a goldmine. NARA reviewed Mitchell’s collection, selected dozens of notable pieces from as far back as 1792, and created the exhibit, “Slavery and Freedom in Black and White,” which was on display in Atlanta at NARA from May to October of 2011.  

Part of Mitchell's Collection: "Emancipator and Free American" Newspaper from Boston,

Printed on Thursday, December 22, 1842  

 

So what does the exhibit teach? “If someone says slavery didn’t happen ... you’ve got proof. If they said they didn’t brand some folks ... you’ve got proof. If they say that black soldiers didn’t fight ... you’ve got proof; or that people didn’t get whipped ... you’ve got proof,” she says. “It documents history.”  

Mitchell’s goal is to duplicate the newspapers and turn the exhibit into a traveling one to share with school children. 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Newsletter
join our mailing list
* indicates required
UPS Store