Former Rep. Parren Mitchell (D), the first black elected to Congress from Maryland, died at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center on Monday night at the age of 85. No cause of death was listed, at Mitchell’s request, according to the Congressman’s nephew, Michael Mitchell.
During his 16 years serving Maryland’s 7th district, which included part of his hometown of Baltimore, Mitchell was known as a strong liberal, an advocate for minority rights and a champion of anti-poverty programs.
“He was a true servant leader, never concerning himself about fame or fortune, but rather, devoting himself entirely to uplifting the people he represented,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), who now holds Mitchell’s seat, said in a statement Tuesday.
Hailing from a prominent political family — his brother was a longtime lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his nephew and great-nephew served in the Maryland Senate — Mitchell entered Congress in 1971 after beating white incumbent Rep. Samuel Friedel (D) by fewer than 40 votes in the Democratic primary.
Shortly thereafter, Mitchell became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an organization he would later lead. He also served three terms as chairman of the Small Business Committee.
“Growing up in Baltimore, the Mitchell family was revered in my home,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “It is a great testament to the leadership of Parren Mitchell that the organization he helped found — the Congressional Black Caucus — continues to serve as the conscience of the Congress.”
In the House, Mitchell was outspoken on issues he was passionate about, including the censure of then-President Richard Nixon — he was one of the first Members of Congress to push for Nixon’s resignation. However, Mitchell was also known, at times, to be more reserved.
“Parren is essentially very shy. He will walk up to you and say, ‘Hey, baby doll’ or ‘Devil,’ that’s his other pet name, but if you tease him like that, he gets embarrassed, stammers and walks away,” a former staff member told The Washington Post in a 1977 profile of Mitchell.
Mitchell’s Congressional service was marred by the scandal surrounding Wedtech, a Bronx, N.Y., defense contractor accused in the 1980s of bribing Members of Congress. While Mitchell was never directly implicated in the case or charged with any wrongdoing, two of his nephews served jail time in connection with the scandal.
Before entering Congress, Mitchell was a well-known advocate for minority rights, pressing hard against institutions that discriminated against blacks. Perhaps the most famous example was his own lawsuit against the University of Maryland at College Park.
After finishing his undergraduate degree at what was then Morgan State College (where he would later become a sociology professor), Mitchell applied to the University of Maryland’s graduate school. His application, however, was denied on the basis of race.
Not accepting the university’s offer to set him up in a graduate program elsewhere, Mitchell sued, eventually winning his case and becoming the first black in the school’s graduate program.
In addition to his public service in the House, Mitchell also served as a commissioned officer and company commander with the 92nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. While serving under Gen. George Patton in North Africa during World War II, he received a Purple Heart.
Michael Mitchell described his uncle as “very religious and a lifelong Episcopalian.” He never married.
Michael Mitchell said the family is planning to hold a public memorial service in Baltimore on June 5 but was still working on final details at the time of this posting.