She got racist hate mail and sometimes stirred tensions as the “voice for the voiceless,” but Columnist Mary Mitchell went on to build a fulfilling career at the Chicago Sun Times
By Erick Johnson
Her first story was about a moose that got loose somewhere in Chicago. It was 1990 and Mary Mitchell was in a state of disbelief on her first day at the Chicago Sun-Times. There was no Twitter or Facebook, and the computers back then looked like the old tube television set that sat in your grandmother’s living room.
On her first day at the Sun-Times the newsroom was humming as usual. While reporters hacked away their stories on keyboards, for two days Mitchell stared at her computer screen on her desk.
After years of reading stories by some of the most prominent names in journalism, she suddenly found herself sitting just yards away from them. Tom McNamee. Don Hayner. Lynn Sweet. After a sudden career change, it was time for Mitchell to build a name for herself.
It’s a day that Mitchell will never forget and a personal story that she loves to share. A big break and an unfortunate event at a dead-end job caused her to walk across the street to work at one of Chicago’s biggest newspapers.
Divine intervention somehow had bigger plans for Mitchell that were bigger than her. When she stepped into the newsroom at the Chicago Sun-Times, it was the start of a journalism career for a Black woman raised in a public housing project on the South Side.
After nearly three decades and thousands of stories and columns later, Mitchell is winding down her career as one of the Sun-Times most prominent columnists.
Today, Mitchell is spending more time walking the dog and enjoying the leafy landscape of South Shore where she lives. It’s a new chapter for a journalist who was a crusader for the powerless and as most know, a ‘voice for the voiceless.’
She did it by going after the stories many editors and reporters overlook. A Black baby caught in the middle of a nasty custody battle. An elderly woman being evicted in Bronzeville after being ripped off by contractors. They are stories that kept Mitchell’s bond with her roots while working at a big city newspaper, where many journalists young and old prefer chasing big stories at City Hall.
Mitchell blazed a trail of fighting for the little guy.
Journalist Mike Royko did so for his blue-collar readers.
Mitchell did so for people of color who have little money.
Being passed over for a promotion in favor of a white woman somehow laid the foundation for Mit- chell to serve a higher purpose as a Black journalist.
On Friday, August 16, some of the most prominent names in Chicago journalism will honor Mitchell at Taste 222. The event will celebrate Mitchell’s award-winning journalism career that has impacted the life of countless readers.
Two days before the event, Mitchell stopped by the Crusader office to talk about her career.
Mitchell is in semi-retirement, but she told the Crusader that she is “downsizing.” Her editors wanted her to write one column a week, but Mitchell instead will write two a month. The new move was Mitchell’s choice. She said she started thinking of retirement a year ago.
“It actually started a year ago. I had felt like retiring because I said what needed to be said,” Mitchell said. “I had tackled the issues that I wanted to tackle. And I really felt a desire to pass the mantle, to find another voice, a fresh voice that I could help groom, mentor, whatever you want to call it, to take my place because I felt like it was time.”
Mitchell said today’s challenges of the print industry did not affect her decision. She did say using emails, Twitter, Instagram and social media made her job difficult.
“I think that it became primary and secondary. In the beginning of my career, answering emails is something you did after you did all the other things that you needed to do, like reporting and editing and getting the story in the paper and responding to the reader’s reaction to that story and then you looked at the emails.
“But now it became a thing where the emails became primary, where you actually had to read the emails before you thought about what the day’s story was going to be. You find yourself at 2 o’clock in the morning with the lap top in bed right next to you and the pillow because you’re trying to keep up with what’s going on.”
How Mitchell ended up at the Sun-Times is a story itself.
In 1989, Mitchell was a paralegal who took journalism classes at night at Columbia College. There, a professor urged her to consider a career in journalism after reviewing her work. He encouraged her to apply to the Sun-Times’ first minority internship program for 1990.
“I just thought, ‘Um, I don’t know about that.’ But he convinced me that I would be able to do it. I applied.”
Mitchell enrolled in Columbia while working as a paralegal at a law firm. She was hoping for a promotion, but Mitchell said the firm hired a white woman who was 20 years younger.
“I cried. I felt that was pure discrimination. I had two choices,” Mitchell said. “I could have gone to the EEOC, filed a complaint, or I could have done what I did, which was to move on.”
Mitchell got the internship and quit the law firm, which was across the street from the former Sun-Times building where the Trump Hotel and Tower currently sits.
“For 10 years, I had been across the street at the law firm when my real destiny was right across the street at the Chicago Sun-Times.”
Mitchell said she was so overwhelmed on her first day, she was unable to write for the next two days. Her editors wanted her to write a four-paragraph story on a moose that was loose in Chicago. It’s a story Mitchell doesn’t remember well but she laughs about it as she looks back on the experience.
“I just froze. I couldn’t think of a lead,” said Mitchell. “I couldn’t talk. I was stuttering. I was stuttering.”
As a young reporter, Mitchell covered stories on education and the infamous F5 tornado in Plainfield that killed 29 people and injured over 350 people.
Mitchell said her first byline on the front page was shared with the late legendary Sun-Times reporter Phil O’Connor. Mitchell said she did the research and O’Connor did the writing. It was a story about a teenage couple killed in a car accident during a prom at Sullivan High School on the North Side.
“It was just a tragic accident,” Mitchell recalled. “There was no alcohol or foul play involved.”
Although the story was a sad one, Mitchell was inspired after seeing her name on the front page.
“There’s no greater feeling than that,” she said. “It was with another reporter, but it was there.”
After her internship ended, Mitchell was asked to stay part-time on the job while finishing her degree. In 1991, a year later she was hired as a full-time journalist after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
In 1995, Mitchell accepted the offer to become a columnist.
The Sun-Times was looking to beef up its Sunday edition. Mitchell by then had gained the attention of editors after doing a series on race with colleague Don Hayner. As part of the series, Mitchell wrote from a Black perspective and Hayner wrote from the point of view of a white journalist.
Then came 1996. Mitchell began writing a series of columns that would prove to be one of the biggest battles of her career. The story was about ‘Baby T,’ a Black infant caught in a nasty custody battle between Alderman Ed Burke (15th Ward) and his wife Ann, and the child’s mother, a former drug addict who cleaned up her life through the Department of Children and Family Services. A judge eventually decided to give the Burke’s full custody while given visitation rights were given to ‘Baby T’s’ mother.
Mitchell said the story not only divided the city, but also the newsroom, where some felt that the Burkes should get the baby and the mother shouldn’t, because of her past.
“It was my first real battle. The story was huge,” Mitchell recalled. “I was very young in my career. I don’t think I had the skills to fight that battle. But I fought that battle because no one stepped up to do the story.”
At the Sun-Times, Mitchell said she often received hate mail and phone calls, many from people who called her the n-word or c-word. She said for years she received racist voicemail messages from a man, but she persevered on the job.
Mitchell experienced a personal battle in 2009, when she was diagnosed with Stage One breast cancer. After going through chemo-therapy, she lost her hair and came to work bald. She prefers natural hair instead of wearing a wig. She wrote a front page story about her experience and eventually took 12 weeks off from work. She was cancer free in 2010.
“That was the longest time I spent away from the office, but it was a very difficult time in my life,” Mitchell said.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Mitchell’s family moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. With eight children, the family lived in the Dearborn projects and the demolished Clarence Darrow Homes on the South Side.
In 1967, Mitchell graduated from Dunbar high School and worked 20 years as a paralegal.
She received the Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists; the Studs Terkel Award from the Chicago Media Workshop; and many Peter Lisagor Awards from the Chicago Headline Club.
Mitchell said she is looking forward to spending more time at home, but she is concerned about the future of Blacks entering journalism.
“Big time journalists and columnists don’t give up their seats that easily. What that means is that other people’s voices don’t have a chance to be heard. There’s no space for them and that’s not right.
“I’m not justifying that. We never talk about that when we talk about white journalists. They stay around, and you have one or two or three. Look at the Tribune. You have four or five different white voices that are columnists, but you don’t have that for Black people.
“A Black columnist, you get one out of a whole cadre of six or seven columnists. You might get a Black voice on the sport pages, but other than that you get one. So that person stays there forever, so what happens to somebody else who’s in the pipeline? They’re waiting and waiting and waiting. The next thing you know, their career is over, too.
So, I didn’t want to do that. I just really felt compelled to try to look around and find somebody else who would be interested in doing what I do.”