Lesson 124:
Constance "Connie" Mitchell

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 4/14/2023

preceded on 4/4/2023 by a blatantly "fanboy" sketchcard of celebrated author and poet
Clint Smith, III in celebration of his new book, Above Ground

Prelude | 120 | 121 | 122 | 123 | 124 | 125 | 126 | 127 | 128 | Email

Connie Mitchell - pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

"I was born and raised in the North, and I knew that there was discrimination... but I had never seen that type of hatred on the face of anyone before. It forced me to work harder, to come back and work harder. It forced me to take a good look at people that I knew and what was going on in my own community."

Today we study the achievements of social justice giant Constance Mitchell, someone who truly understood the intrinsic connection between poverty and racial inequality, and infused that into her every action.

Born in 1928 New Rochelle, New York, little is known of the childhood or coming-of-age years of Constance ("Connie") Mae Jenkins, but in 1950 she married Louisianan John Mitchell (part of the Great Migration) and moved to Rochester, New York --the city for which she would forever be associated, despite her initial impression of a place where "people here didn't know how to smile and they weren't friendly at all." Her first foray into Rochester community activism was as a volunteer with the Delta Ressics, a group of Baden Street Black activists who pushed for better housing and living conditions for migrant farm workers living in shacks near Sodus. She also fought against deplorable living conditions at the Hanover Houses, Rochester's first low-income apartment complex.

In 1959 at the urging of a fellow Delta Rassick, Walter Cooper, Mitchell ran for --and lost-- a race for a seat on what is now the Monroe County legislature (Ward 3, then known as the Monroe County Board of Supervisors). However she made another run in 1961 and was this time successful, and was then re-elected in 1964: the first woman and the first African-American to be elected to that body --though not without enduring resentment, routine insults and slurs, and even threats from her fellow legislators. From this position she and her husband came into regular contact with such figures as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among many other civil rights leaders of the time --even entertaining visits from Malcolm and then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In the wake of the violent 1964 racial unrest in Rochester, Connie expressed in an interview for Life magazine, "I'm not telling you, I told you so. I'm saying please listen to us." These two terms were the full extent of Connie's political career but her commitment to civil rights was just getting started: in 1965, she walked alongside Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, but while this heroic act itself disillusioned her, at the same time it reinvigorated her determination to improves lives and conditions in her own community.

Perhaps one of Mitchell's enduring achievements was the founding of Action for a Better Community, a Rochester-based nonprofit devoted to helping people in low-income areas become more self-sufficient and lift themselves out of poverty. She also worked closely with the United Way and the Urban League of Rochester, and created the Urban League Black Scholars program. In later years (1978 to 1989), she became the Program Director for an initiative called PRISM (Program for Rochester to Interest Students in Science and Mathematics). In 1993 Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, the first elected Black mayor of that city, credited Connie with inspiring him to get into politics; and in 2013 mayor Lovely Warren, the first Black woman to be elected to that position, similarly credited Connie as a role model.

In February 2017, Mitchell was awarded the Frederick Douglass Medal for outstanding civic engagement by the University of Rochester. She died the following year (2018); today the Monroe Country Office Building bears her name at the Constance Mitchell Concourse.

Read a truly absorbing transcript of a lengthy 2008 interview with Constance and John Mitchell at:

Next page - Lesson 125: Melanie Henderson

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