July 14, 2023

Baltimore Law Offices of Juanita Jackson Mitchell to Be Restored

Jackson Mitchell was the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland, and a force within the civil rights movement.

Around every corner in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Marble Hill, historic buildings sit waiting to tell incredible stories of the African American Civil Rights Movement and twentieth-century Black culture and intellectual life. A recent push to preserve the architectural heritage of this historic district has enjoyed significant success. Its latest win was securing funding to restore the Mitchell Law Offices, once the office of Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland.

“Juanita Jackson Mitchell made a name for herself among the who’s who of progressive America,” said Larry S. Gibson, the Morton and Sophia Macht Professor of Law at the University of Maryland School of Law and a lifelong Baltimorean. “She was quite a leader.”

Jackson Mitchell practiced law from the three-story brick building on Druid Hill Avenue from the time she graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1950 until her retirement. She lived in the neighborhood until she died in 1992.

A group of people, including lawyer Juanita Jackson Miller.

photo by: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Elizabeth Ann Hylton

An image of Juanita Jackson Mitchell and the Scottsboro Boys in 1936. Jackson Mitchell visited the group when she was the NAACP's national youth director. (L-R) Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, William Roberson, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Charles Weems, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Laura Kellum, Andrew Wright, Eugene Williams, Ernest W. Taggart

A Neighborhood at the Center of the Civil Rights Movement

Located at 1239 Druid Hill Avenue, the Mitchell Law Offices were at “the epicenter of power” in the Black Baltimorean community in the Civil Rights era, according to Alvin C. Hathaway, executive director of Beloved Community Services Corporation. From the former homes of civil rights leaders to the public school Thurgood Marshall attended long before he became the first Black Supreme Court Justice, much of Baltimore’s Black heritage is concentrated in Marble Hill, named for the marble steps that adorn many of its historic homes.

“It’s not a big neighborhood. But it has had an outsized impact on the civil rights movement,” said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving historic buildings and revitalizing neighborhoods in Baltimore. “For several generations, it fostered some of the city’s and the nation’s leading civil rights advocates and voices.”

A wide view of Druid Avenue in Baltimore. The black and white image includes the Mitchell Law Offices, where Juanita Jackson Mitchell practiced.

photo by: Maryland Center for History and Culture, Paul S. Henderson Photograph Collection

Looking northeast from the 500 block of West Lanvale Street toward the 1200 block of Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland, this image shows the law offices of Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Bethel A.M.E. Church on left.

After decades of deferred maintenance, many of the district’s historic buildings have fallen into disrepair. Others have already been lost, including a rowhouse that served as the headquarters of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1950s and '60s and hosted prominent figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, on their visits to Baltimore.

Hopkins said the neglect of architectural heritage and Black history in the district tracks with larger trends of disinvestment in Baltimore’s Black communities. With this in mind, Beloved Community Services Corporation and Baltimore Heritage are leading the charge to preserve Marble Hill in ways that serve its current community. Hopkins said they are on a mission to “use heritage to elevate Baltimore’s historic Black neighborhoods … and bring attention and resources to communities that need it.”

The Mitchell Law Office is one of the most significant preservation projects in Marble Hill. After decades of neglect, the building’s roof collapsed in 2014. It was stabilized thanks to grant funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Funds in 2021—funds which drew attention to the importance of the building and the neighborhood. Beloved Community Services Corporation acquired the building that same year with plans to further its preservation. This year, the organization received $1.75 million in congressional funding to restore the offices.

Juanita Jackson Mitchell’s Lifetime of Service

The building is a fitting focal point for the historic district. It once served as the legal office of Juanita Jackson Mitchell and her husband, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Known for being the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland, Jackson Mitchell was also a writer and organizer.

Early in her career, Jackson Mitchell was a speechwriter for Mary McLeod Bethune. She then founded the Citywide Young People’s Forum in 1931. The forum brought young Black progressives together for social and political events. Gibson said it was a space where “civil rights leaders, intellectual leaders, lawyers, and the like from all over the country” rubbed shoulders. She became the NAACP’s youth director in 1935.

Jackson Mitchell later returned to college to earn a law degree. She became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1950 and opened her legal practice to take on civil rights cases.

A portrait image of Juanita Jackson Mitchell in her Law Offices.

photo by: Maryland Center for History and Culture, Paul S. Henderson Photograph Collection

A photograph of Juanita Jackson Mitchell c. 1951.

Exterior view of the front of an office. The windows have lettering indicating that it is the Mitchell Law Offices.

photo by: Maryland Center for History and Culture, Paul S. Henderson Photograph Collection

Historic view of the Juanita Jackson Mitchell Law Offices in Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1951.

Gibson knew Jackson Mitchell, and he said they worked together on several matters during her law career, “almost all of them connected to civil rights.” “We were all involved with the sit-in movement leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” he said. She served as counsel in lawsuits to end segregation in public facilities, like recreation centers, restaurants, and public schools in Baltimore and across Maryland. “Then there were multiple issues at her practice dealing with housing discrimination and police brutality,” said Gibson. Notably among these, Jackson Mitchell fought to prevent warrantless searches of private homes following the Veney Raids of 1964.

Jackson Mitchell also served as president of the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP later in her career, and the Mitchell Law Offices provided a meeting space for the organization.

Continuing a Legacy of Community-Building and Justice

The ongoing preservation work in Marble Hill honors Jackson Mitchell’s commitment to community-building and justice. With construction starting on the project shortly, the building is slated to open next summer. Its new tenant will be the survivor advocacy organization Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise (ROAR). Headquartered at the University of Maryland, ROAR provides holistic, client-driven services, including counseling, legal support, and medical care management support, to survivors of crime. “It fits just the kind of work that Juanita Jackson Mitchell did,” said Hathaway.

ROAR’s executive director Lydia Watts said the building’s history matches her organization’s mission. “It is so rich in the history of all the things that really guide ROAR’s work—a focus on anti-racism, anti-oppression, recognizing how racism and poverty are the root causes of the high rates of gun violence that plague the city, and recognizing other devastating consequences of racism and how it manifests in Baltimore City.”

Watts said the move will also bring ROAR closer to the people it serves. “It is really exciting to be in the neighborhood and more accessible to community members.”

An exterior view of a building in West Baltimore. There is signage in the window announcing the location as the soon to be Juanita Jackson Mitchell Law Center.

photo by: Jo Ann Stallings

Exterior of the Mitchell Law Offices in 2023.

As part of a larger preservation project encompassing several buildings in the neighborhood, the effects of the renovations will extend far beyond on-site services. “We’re making a $20 million investment inside the space of three blocks in this community,” said Hathaway. “That has a real economic impact, and there’s a lot of excitement.”

Beloved Community Services Corporation is also partnering with local and Black-led businesses, including the architecture firm, title company, and contractors, to ensure investment dollars remain in the community and community members have a voice in the projects. Hathaway said the team “demonstrates the excellent skillsets within the African American community.”

A group of people congregating in front of the Mitchell Law Offices to advocate for its preservation.

photo by: Baltimore Heritage

A group of people congregating, in February 2020, in front of the Mitchell Law Offices to advocate for its preservation.

Michael Mitchell, the son of Juanita Jackson Mitchell provides an educational tour in front of the site of Juanita Jackson Mitchell.

photo by: Baltimore Heritage

Michael Mitchell, the son of Juanita Jackson Mitchell, provides an educational tour in front of the site of his mother's offices, on February 5, 2020.

The restoration and transformation of the Mitchell Law Offices is indicative of the impact preservation can have on local communities. As Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, “Through this work, we are able to do more than just tell stories or create equal representation in the American narrative. It is also about stimulating revitalization and the continued use of historic places. Historic preservation is an investment in Black communities, Black culture, and Black neighborhoods.”

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Marianne Dhenin is a historian and journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics.

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