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In the basement of a rather ordinary Virginia town house, Mark Mitchell is wheeling and dealing the high end of history. While other guys collect guns and baseball cards, Mitchell is out there collecting documents. Not just any old pieces of paper, but rare historical African-American documents. So far he has over a million dollars’ worth of black history inside his small home.
“There are people who pay $50 million for a painting at Sotheby’s,” says Mitchell as he presents one of his favorite pieces, a signed cabinet-size photo of Frederick Douglass. “I think this picture is so elegant,” he says, holding the framed portrait. Imprinted in gold on the small, autographed 1893 photo is the photographer’s name and the studio’s Pennsylvania Avenue address. “I’ve been to the Louvre and they have some nice stuff. But I’d rather have this than one of those paintings.”
Equally impressive documents decorate the walls of Mitchell’s house. A letter from Malcolm X to Elijah Muhammed. A signed Ethel Waters photo. A letter written by Mary McCleod Bethune. A 1770 newspaper story on Crispus Attucks. Many documents rest on the floor, propped against the walls in his office while others are kept in binders, waiting to be sent to the framer.
The collector and some partners recently started the Foundation of African-American History. The foundation plans to raise money to expand the collection and then take it on the road, touring schools, churches, corporations, and any other place where there’s an interested group of people.
Mitchell is a quixotic combination of savvy businessman and nerdy history buff. He cites historical dates and places as if talking about today’s top news stories. The phone rings and he answers, making small talk before he tells the caller he can help them sell a piece for more money. He hangs up and his voice becomes animated and full of reverence as he stops to talk about a particular book or photo.
“It literally sends chills down my spine. Showing [a piece] to someone, I sometimes get more excited than the person I showed it to. It’s a privilege. It’s a humbling experience,” he gushes. “Just to be able to handle some of the most important rarities in history, and to educate as well.”
He picks up an autographed, first edition of Phyllis Wheatley’s book of poems as casually as if it were a piece of pulp fiction by Danielle Steel. Alex Haley’s logbook from July through September 1964, full of handwritten notes about the Autobiography of Malcolm X and publisher meetings for Roots, lies on top of a drafting table along with scattered notes and papers. Mitchell licks his thumb to flip through the pages, assuring me that it won’t harm the paper.
“I’ve handled historical documents for so long. I can authenticate and appraise them. It’s nothing for me to pick them up.”
A native Washingtonian, Mitchell has been collecting and dealing historical documents, primarily newspapers, for 20 years now. Over the past four years, he has begun to focus more on African-American documents.
His love affair with history began in childhood. “I read all of this when I was 8. I would go to the library and get five history books. Read those, go back, and get five more.” When other kids were watching Howdy Doody, Mitchell was reading about Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Not much has changed since then. Mitchell says that when he acquires a new piece he immediately researches it. One of his current favorite topics is the Revolutionary War. He notes that 5,000 slaves and freed blacks fought in integrated regiments in the Continental Army, not the militia, and that many fought under George Washington. He has documents on 71 of them. “It started with one and I just couldn’t stop,” he explains.
What sets Mitchell’s collection apart is not its size or even the pieces of which it is comprised, but the way it is presented. Letters, autographs, and other documents are matted and framed along with a photo of the historical figure. Newspapers are often double-framed, making it possible for viewers to read the entire document.
“I didn’t see anybody presenting an African-American collection like this,” the collector observes. “Most are books. Piles and piles of books. [This collection] is like a petting zoo. You can put your hands on it or at least get close. That’s my goal—to get people really close to this.”
Another unique aspect to Mitchell’s collection is its use of newspapers. “Most people don’t think you can incorporate newspapers into a collection,” says Mitchell incredulously. “Well, frame it. So it’s a big frame, fine. So it’s fine print. Put a marker where you want people’s eyes to go.”
Dr. Emory Tolbert, chair of Howard University’s history department, recently viewed Mitchell’s collection. “I thought it was very interesting indeed,” he recalls. “He especially has a strong collection of documents from the American Revolution.
“It doesn’t touch institutional collections by any stretch of the imagination,” Tolbert is quick to note, but, he adds, “what he has is very good, especially to have in the hands of one man.”
It’s not just academics who hope to get a tour of Mitchell’s house; his collection allows him to hobnob with politicians and athletes. At a recent fundraiser, he showed Virginia Gov. George Allen a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed in a 1776 copy of the Virginia Gazette. Allen was blown away, and the two spent much of the party talking about history.
Former Washington Redskin Terry Orr found out about Mitchell’s collection because they share the same stockbroker. After meeting with Mitchell, he bought an 1883 copy of Harper’s Weekly with Frederick Douglass on the cover. Other Redskins—Raleigh Mackenzie, Ernest Byner, and Art Monk—saw Orr’s goods and decided they too wanted to own pieces of history.
“Art Monk started calling me,” says Mitchell, clearly delighted. “There’s screaming fans trying to get to this guy and he’s over here all the time.”
Mitchell says it was his conversations with Orr that led him to the decision not to sell everything off, but to save key pieces and start a viable collection. It was the summer of 1992, and Orr had recently finished reading Before the Mayflower, Lerone Bennett Jr.’s historical discourse on black contributions to civilization. Orr convinced Mitchell to read it as well. Both men thought the book was fantastic: If they could create a visual counterpart to Bennett’s book, they reasoned, it would help people relate to black history.
“The history [of black Americans] tends to get watered down, but with the documents, you hear straight from the horse’s mouth,” says Orr. “If you take a contemporary history book, there are inaccuracies. We now have the documents to prove a lot of that stuff wrong.”
They approached Koteles Alexander, senior partner of Alexander, Aponte & Marks, L.L.P., the second-largest minority-owned law firm in the country. Alexander was so impressed with the collection that he agreed to sign on as legal counsel for the foundation.
“Most exhibits focus on a.) Africa or b.) civil rights, meaning the time of the ’50s through 1968,” explains Alexander. “This guy has material that spans the timeline of America’s existence. That’s what I found intriguing.”
The foundation has three main goals: to establish a permanent exhibit space, sponsor scholarships once funding gets under way, and serve as a depository for other collections or items that reveal African-Americans’ historical contributions to this country.
“Not a lot of value is placed on items that are evidence of black historical contributions,” Alexander notes. “George Washington has value. But something from George Washington Carver? I bet the value is not so great.” Ironically, the lower value ascribed to rare documents dealing with black figures has worked to Mitchell’s advantage. Still, they don’t come cheap. Mitchell has acquired the items in his collection through diligence and good fortune. “I write letters, do a lot of faxing, phone calls to dealers. And my check doesn’t bounce.”
Mitchell’s modest house doesn’t lead one to believe that the collector has deep pockets. “I was in the rare coin business for a while. Had a few good years,” Mitchell says in the confidential tone of a practiced negotiator. He still makes his living dealing old newspapers, with much of the profits now going back into the African-American collection.
“I’ve got my name out everywhere. I work on it seven days a week,” says Mitchell. “We’re putting an entire puzzle together. A lot of these pieces are available for sale. I don’t want it to get unwieldy, yet I want to keep the consistency, the glue.”
The glue in this collection—which covers the involvement of blacks in the military, politics, sports, and the arts—may very well be Mitchell himself. Men don’t wax poetic about the loves of their lives with the same fervor that Mitchell displays for his documents. History is his life. “Someone might call me on the phone and ask me the date. “I’m in 1689 right now, I don’t know about you,’ ” he says with a laugh.
He hopes the collection will inspire kids to love history and learning as much as he did as a child. “They might see the signature on a document and say, “My gosh!’ and go to the library on their own.”
Never mind the fact that the foundation just incorporated a few weeks ago. Never mind that they just started raising the millions of dollars necessary to get the foundation off the ground. As far as Mitchell is concerned, he only needs one thing to see his dreams become reality.
“Passion, ’cause that’s what we have. Let Congress argue about the museum on the Mall,” he says, his voice filled with zealous determination. “While you’re taking you’re time, we’re gonna go out and do this, ’cause it needs to be done.”