The former office of Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland, will soon serve as a legal and social services hub in West Baltimore’s Marble Hill historic district, community leaders announced Monday.
Located at 1239 Druid Hill Ave. in Upton, the vacant building where Mitchell’s office sat was purchased by the Beloved Community Services Corporation. Its executive director, Alvin Hathaway, said he’s “blessed” to give the neighborhood where he grew up a gift on his birthday.
“We are giving to this community the gift of a longstanding vacant building being transformed into a state-of-the-art historic restoration. A place that will once again provide legal services to the residents of this community,” Hathaway said. “I remember this building’s large glass windows which displayed cases of pictures highlighting the work and the legacy of Miss Juanita Jackson Mitchell.”
Juanita Mitchell is also recognized as the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. So it’s fitting that the survivor advocacy organization Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise, headquartered at her alma mater, will also begin offering their services at the newly renovated building when it opens, though no date has been set.
U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, all Democrats, presented the check for $1.75 million in congressional funding to the Beloved Community Services Corporation for the renovation.
“Juanita Jackson Mitchell is a legend to all of us, the matriarch of an incredible family,” Cardin said.
Juanita Mitchell’s son, former state senator Michael Bowen Mitchell, her grandson, former state delegate Keiffer Jackson Mitchell Jr., and other family members were present.
Michael Mitchell recalled how his mother graduated from Frederick Douglass High School when she was just 14 and then graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at 18.
“And that’s no small feat to come from Douglass High School, a segregated high school in Baltimore, to finish at a predominately white Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania,” Michael Mitchell said. “When she graduated, she couldn’t get a job because she was too young,” so his grandmother, Dr. Lillie Carroll Jackson, a 30-year president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, arranged for her to become the speech writer for Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, he said.
Juanita Mitchell did that for two years before she went back to the University of Pennsylvania and got a master’s with honors in sociology. She also founded the Baltimore City-Wide Young People’s Forum in 1931 and became youth director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1935, before she attained her law degree, Micheal Mitchell added.
“So she knew James Weldon Johnson, in fact. And she grew up with Justice Thurgood Marshall, and used to type the briefs for his Baltimore cases before she even thought about law,” Michael Mitchell said.
Juanita Mitchell also became the Carey law school’s first law review editor before graduating with honors in 1950, her son said. She then opened her law practice to take on civil rights cases in the state, particularly in Baltimore.
“She always said it was important to stay close to the people. That’s why she kept the office in the neighborhood. Plus, they wouldn’t rent Blacks suites downtown, anyway. But she felt more comfortable there in the neighborhood. She even had these large glass windows, and they were never broken out the entire time she had the building opened,” Michael Mitchell added.
In 1958, she directed the NAACP’s “Register to Vote” campaign, which resulted in more than 20,000 new registrations. She served as counsel in suits to eliminate segregation in public facilities, like recreation centers, restaurants and public schools in Baltimore City and other jurisdictions in Maryland.
She also advocated for the prevention of mass searches of private homes without warrants after the Veney raids of 1964, according to Mfume, who also grew up in the neighborhood
“After a pair of brothers shot and killed two police officers” there was a dragnet, where over 300 doors of homes in this community were kicked in without warrants while searching for them. And she was the one person in the entire state that came forward to stop that by filing a suit, which still stands today, as Michael tells me,” Mfume added.
Mfume began working on the funding earmark for this renovation about nine months ago. He said many people thought that the bill wouldn’t get through the House of Representatives, but when it did, Cardin and Van Hollen helped get it passed in the Senate.
“As someone who grew up on Division Street just two blocks away, I know what it was like, years and years ago, to live under this massive thing they called segregation, and how it was so very, very difficult to have communities like this to be able to thrive and to grow together, but they did anyway. And it was because of persons like Mrs. Mitchell,” Mfume said.
“And as Ben and Chris indicated, this is not the end; this is the beginning. Every kind of way we can find a way to help further enhance this community, we will do so,” he added.