Juanita Jackson Mitchell (1913–1992)

Juanita Jackson Mitchell was a pioneering African-American attorney whose many accomplishments included being the first black woman to practice law in Maryland. Born in Arkansas, she grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she became a civil rights attorney, as well as the matriarch of one of Maryland’s most politically influential black families.

Juanita Elizabeth Jackson was born on January 2, 1913, in Hot Springs (Garland County) to Keiffer Albert Jackson and Dr. Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson. Keiffer Jackson was an exhibitor of religious and educational films, which he showed across the country, and he and his wife were apparently in the midst of one of the exhibition tours when their daughter was born, but as soon as they were able, they returned to their home in Baltimore. Mitchell was educated in segregated Baltimore and graduated from the city’s Frederick Douglass High School. She then attended Morgan State College but transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a BS in education in 1931, while also leading an effort to end racial segregation in the university’s dormitories. She continued her studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning an MA in sociology in 1935. In 1950, a decade and a half after a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lawsuit had forced the University of Maryland Law School to admit black students, she graduated from the law school and was admitted to the state bar, becoming the first African-American woman to practice law in the state of Maryland.

Part of her motivation for studying law was her post-college experiences. After her graduation from Penn, Jackson traveled widely in the United States working for the Bureau of Negro Work as well as the Methodist Church, speaking and teaching on race relations. Then, following receipt of her master’s degree from Penn, from 1935 to 1938, Jackson was a special assistant to NAACP Executive Secretary Walter F. White, serving as the organization’s National Youth Director.

On September 7, 1938, Jackson married Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. at Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Church in Baltimore. They had four sons. Her husband, as the NAACP’s lead lobbyist on Capitol Hill, would eventually wield so much influence in the campaigns to secure passage of both the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts that he came to be known as “101st Senator.” Meanwhile, Mitchell was carving out her own place in the movement.

She was named a member of the White House Conference on Children by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, to the White House Conference on Women and Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and to the White House Conference to Fulfill These Rights by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.

While she had become a national figure, she made her greatest impact and was most dedicated to her efforts in Baltimore and Maryland. Mitchell served as legal counsel to the local NAACP, an organization her mother had led for over three decades. In addition, she headed the Maryland NAACP, taking over from her mother in the early 1960s. In those roles, she led successful efforts to get the city to hire black social workers, librarians, and police officers. In 1953, while the NAACP was pursuing the cases that would culminate in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall filed a suit to allow two black students to enroll in the Mergenthaler School of Printing. The Brown decision would make that possible.

She also oversaw efforts that eventually led to opening public facilities while also removing barriers to the hiring of African Americans in schools and colleges. She filed suits that led to the successful desegregation in the mid-1950s of swimming pools in Baltimore and at the Fort Smallwood Municipal Park Beach during that same period. Meanwhile, in the early 1960s, she led the effort to end segregation in the city’s restaurants. In 1966, Mitchell won a case that prohibited the Baltimore City Police Commission from carrying out mass searches of private homes without warrants. Too, she led the fight to change the state’s jury system, which had required that there be two lists of prospective jurors, one list of white people and the other of black.

In the decades following World War II and before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Mitchell was zealous in her efforts to secure and protect the black population’s right to vote. She regularly conducted voter registration drives and proudly claimed to have put thousands of voters on the rolls. She was an outspoken opponent of police brutality and, from 1965 to 1967, served as co-chair of the Mayor’s Task Force Committee on Police-Community Relations.

As barriers fell, she continued her efforts. In 1985, after several black teenagers had been murdered in shootings in Baltimore, Mitchell helped organize a series of community meetings that became the basis for the “Stop the Killing Campaign.”

Despite the family’s prominence and influence, Mitchell never left the West Baltimore row-house neighborhood where she was raised, even after the area declined. After her sons experienced some major legal troubles that drained the family’s financial resources (especially Clarence Maurice Mitchell III, who served in the Maryland Senate but later served time in prison), the family home was in danger of being sold. But a community fundraising effort successfully raised the more than $60,000 needed to prevent the sale.

Mitchell’s long career earned her many honors. In 1985, the Baltimore City Commission for Women inducted her into the Baltimore City Hall of Fame for Women, and that same year the Law Society of Howard County gave her the Everett J. Waring Honor. Then, in 1987, she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, joining her mother, Dr. Lillie Carroll Jackson, who had been posthumously inducted the previous year. In 1990, the Maryland Women’s Bar Association recognized her with an honorary membership, and in 1991 the Monumental City Bar Association created the Juanita Jackson Mitchell Scholarship Fund.

In November 1989, Mitchell was left a quadriplegic after falling down a flight of stairs. During her therapy for the injuries from the fall, she suffered a stroke, the second she had experienced since 1985. On July 7, 1992, she died from a heart attack and complications stemming from the earlier strokes.

For additional information:
Fletcher, Michael A. “Juanita Jackson Mitchell Dies at 79; Civil Rights Leader Battled Bias in Court.” New York Daily News, July 8, 1992. Online at https://www.nydailynews.com/bs-xpm-1992-07-08-1992190116-story.html (accessed September 25, 2020).

“Juanita Jackson Mitchell.” Baltimore Sun, February 25, 2007. Online at https://www.baltimoresun.com/features/bal-blackhistory-juanita-story.html (accessed September 25, 2020).

“Juanita Mitchell Manning Legal Barricades All Her Life.” African American Registry. https://aaregistry.org/story/juanita-mitchell-manning-legal-barricades-all-her-life/ (accessed September 25, 2020).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 09/25/2020