Project Pilgrimage

Civil rights advocate and friend of the Pilgrimage, Dr. Reavis Mitchell, passes at 72.

Dr. Reavis Mitchell meets with our Spring 2017 cohort at Fisk University.

One of Nashville’s most well-known historians, and a longtime administrator at Fisk University, has died at age 72. Dr. Reavis Mitchell was a civil rights advocate and dear friend of the Pilgrimage.

Starting in 2015, Dr. Mitchell was chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission, which announced his passing this week. The commission describes Mitchell as a “consummate scholar, gentleman and proud Tennessean.”

A 1969 Fisk graduate, Dr. Mitchell joined the faculty in 1980 and served multiple administrative roles. He was most recently dean of the School of Humanities and Behavioral Social Sciences.

Dr. Mitchell helped propel a decades-long push to add more markers about Black history, as well as markers documenting racist incidents and institutions. In 2018, he spoke at the unveiling of a marker for Nashville’s slave market:

“Markers should not be simply to honor heroic individuals. Markers should not be to honor those who are famous or who want to be famous. Markers ought to reflect the true reality of history,” –

A Nashville native, he authored an authoritative history of Fisk University. He was widely published and quoted in local and national media, and a cherished member of the Pilgrimage community.

Sean Greenlee and Pamela Banks present Dr. Mtchell with a gift of gratitude in 2017.

Executive Director of Project Pilgrimage, Felicia Ishino had this to say about Dr. Mitchell, “We visited Dr. Mitchell at Fisk on four Pilgrimages. Each time, it was abundantly clear to me that his commitment to history and the student experience at HBCU’s like Fisk was unmatched. We will miss his presence and will carry on his legacy.”

Dr. Mitchell was married to Nashville psychologist Patricia Mitchell and had four sons. Fisk University invites you to honor the legacy of Dr. Reavis Mitchell ’69 by supporting the Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell Jr. PeyBack Endowed Scholarship.

Juneteenth Celebration in Austin, Texas, on June 19, 1900

Most people assume that slavery ended with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, an assumption that is an enduring falsehood. It is sufficient to note that freedom did not come in a singular moment with the swift penning of a well-intentioned dictate. Freedom, instead, was a process, one fueled initially by self-emancipatory efforts. Of the nearly four million African Americans enslaved by the eve of the Civil War in 1861, more than 500,000 would risk their lives and abscond from their places of enslavement to find freedom anywhere—from the treacherous marshlands of the Mississippi River Delta to the bustling urban centers of Canadian territories, or the subjective security of Union strongholds.

They left on their own volition and altered the very aim of the federal government, an aim that shifted from one defined by the preservation of the union to one that privileged freedom over slavery. In April 1865, the surrender of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and his army at Virginia’s Appomattox Courthouse, together with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the United States Senate, ushered in the official end of slavery—for most. Enslaved African Americans in Texas would find a more challenging path to freedom, one that would lead to the creation of a widely celebrated and frequently misunderstood holiday—Juneteenth.

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“It’s not something you read that causes you to change … It’s when you see other individuals fight against the system; believing that justice will come, even if you have to lose your life.”

Dr. Bernard Lafayette

The severity of the violence that took place in Charlottesville, VA has made it a very difficult thing to write about. There has been a need for processing that began with simply getting over the shock that something like that could still happen in our country. The display of hatred and violence that we have all seen was one that represents the reality of racism and discrimination that has existed in our country since its foundation, and one that many of us thought we’d moved past.

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