Juanita Jackson Mitchell was an African-American woman who was monumental in challenging segregation in public schools in Baltimore, MD. Born in segregated Arkansas in 1913, Mitchell grew up with a love for poetry and film. She was the daughter of Kieffer and Dr. Lillie Mae Jackson. Her family often showed films in their home because African-Americans were segregated or barred from attending theaters in the south due to Jim Crow laws.
In the 1920s, Mitchell’s family moved to Baltimore where Mitchell graduated from Frederick Douglass Highschool and attended Morgan State University (today Morgan is an HBCU). She then finished her degree at the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated with a B.S. in education. She also earned an M.A in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. A few years later, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland Law school, which had earlier denied her admission for undergraduate studies due to her race. She became the first African-American woman practice law in the state of Maryland. She married Clarence Mitchell Jr. in 1938, who was active and later held leadership in the NAACP.
Juanita Jackson Mitchell worked to advocate for voting rights for Marylanders through the NAACP. She also co-led a march to Annapolis, the Capitol of Maryland, to advocate for Civil Rights. She started the “City-Wide Young People’s Forum,” to train African-American youth about Civil Rights. During the Great Depression, Juanita Jackson Mitchell also organized a campaign to encourage African-Americans to only support stores that were desegregated.
She worked with Thurgood Marshall and The Afro-American newspaper, to challenge the separation of Black and White children in Baltimore public schools. In 1935, Baltimore County did not have any high schools for Black children and there was only one high school in Baltimore city for children, Frederick Douglass. Not until 1939, did they increase the number of Black schools in the city. In addition, teachers in Baltimore who were African-American earned less than similarly credentialed white teachers. Black schools in the city were also very crowded, so crowded that at Douglass highschool, the children had to study in shifts. Jackson and Marshall brought several lawsuits against the Baltimore City schoolboard to challenge segregation up until Brown v. Board of Education was passed.
It is probable that Juanita Jackson Mitchell’s passion for education and equality came from her family. Her mother came from a line of educators and was a descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Her mother, Lillie Jackson, was also a Civil Rights activist and a teacher. Lillie Jackson played a vital role in expanding the NAACP in Baltimore, which had been founded in 1912, but remained inactive until 1935. Juanita Jackson’s father was born on a plantation in 1836 and learned to read “by women in the big house” (Baum, 34) and later led the African-American schools in his county as a commissioner.
Baum, Howell. Brown in Baltimore. Cornell University Press, 2010.