From marching with Dr. King to marching in the 1969 Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike, Councilman Robert Mitchell has spent most of his life fighting for the Black community and the Charleston community.
Ace: Where are you from on the Peninsula?
Councilman Mitchell: Spring Street, Bogard Street, Rutledge Avenue. Born and raised on Race Street in the City of Charleston. So this is really my home. My parents moved different places–lived on the East Side at one time, back in the 50s. But I’m right here, from here, and left and went to New York. I went to school there, and came back in the 70s.
Ace: In your years of living in Charleston, what lessons have you learned?
Councilman Mitchell: I learned that it has changed a lot. At one time, when you thought of the City of Charleston–African Americans in the City of Charleston were the majority at one time. The percentage has changed a whole lot in the City of Charleston. With new people moving here, and the prices of things are too much for African Americans to pay, so they’re moving out of the Peninsula and going to Summerville, Ladson, Goose Creek–wherever is cheaper. We’ve lost a lot of homes that parents left for their children. Affordability for people to be able to own or rent a home is very, very rough in the City of Charleston now. I worked as a HUD certified counselor for 33 years. Housing is what I know. I was the first in this region to do what they call reverse mortgage.
Ace: What are the things you love most about Charleston?
Councilman Mitchell: Well the big changes that have taken place…this is not the Charleston I grew up in. This is a totally different city. Charleston has now become, to me, a small metropolitan city. When I grew up in Charleston, people worked together. When it was time to go home, everybody went their separate ways. But as far as the kids were concerned, we played together. When the lights got dim, it was time for us to go home.
Ace: Who would you consider a legend in Charleston’s Black community, and why?
Councilman Mitchell: Whew, so many of them. Septima Clark–she’s one of the legends. She was out there, and held her own. Ms. Marjorie Amos-Frazier was the first African American woman to serve on the County Council. Lonnie Hamilton–he’s still here. He’s still playing his saxophone–still going strong. He can tell you a whole lot of stories about what took place. Bill Saunders owned the Black radio station, WPAL.
Ace: You’re a councilman–how many years have you been a councilman? How do you believe being a Black man has impacted your role?
Councilman Mitchell: I got on council first in 1998. I stayed on one term, and got off of council. What they did, they merged my district, District 4, with District 2–which was Councilman Campbell’s district. I said, ‘I’m not gonna play that game. I’m not going to run against my colleague like that. Putting two African-Americans against one another. I’m not gonna do that.’ When the opportunity came up to run for that seat again, I went to church and prayed on it. Didn’t get an answer. Then I had a dream. Someone came to me in my dream and said, ‘You go back and serve your brothers and sisters more than you’ve served them before.’ That’s when I went back, and put my name out there that I was going to run. When I put my name out there–seven people put their names beside mine. People were saying, ‘When God tells you to do something, you don’t worry about it. If he just wants you to run, and show people how to do that–you do it.’
I ran, and knocked six of them off. I had a run-off, and beat the young lady who was from the East Side 3-1. I saw how other people were making a difference, and said, ‘I want to make a difference too. I want to shed some light, and share my experience with the community.’
Ace: What advice would you give to Black youth who aspire to be a politician?
Councilman Mitchell: You cannot stay on the outside. You’ve got to get in there to be able to make a difference. Whatever politics they plan on going into: City Council, County Council whatever the case may be–attend those meetings. So you can learn what takes place at the meetings, and learn about the types of information they receive. Every young person I talk to, I tell them being a council member is a full-time job. Don’t just think you’re going to be sitting in meetings, and that’s it.