A Requiem for Fisk University’s Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell Jr. ’69 (1947-2020)

Historian gifted scores of Fisk University students with the splendor of his remarkable storytelling.

Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell Jr. and me. Jubilee Day 2014.

“Daughter!”

A man with four children, all of them sons, called me that.

In person. In passings. In greetings on the Yard. Even if only a handful of words were spoken.

I am not singular in this regard. At least I don’t think so. Special maybe, but not singular. 

By the time the endearment was employed on me, it may have been in use for at least a generation prior.

Because for forty years, two longer than I’ve been alive, Dr. Reavis Lee Mitchell Jr. gifted scores of students with the splendor of his remarkable storytelling. 

So enchanting were his words that he could have sold blue to the sky or green to lawns of Kentucky bluegrass.

His story-selling was only of dreams which required no hoop. School was our daze. 

Fisk University was our forever. 

Ours forever, was his gift of orations which painted pictures of yesteryears.

Before the Mayflower. 

Up From Slavery. 

The Souls of Black Folk.

Thy Loyal Children Made Their Way

First in an hours-long registrar’s line, then maybe with a pitstop to settle up in financial aid, and finally with paper slips in triplicate: “I want to sign up for Dr. Mitchell’s so and so…” we’d say. 

A seat, any seat, in any one of his classes was prime seating. They were always full. 

Still somebody would finagle their way in. With a pleaded cause, and occasional tears, at the front of the class they’d appear next to his lectern of handwritten notes on aged lined sheets of paper from his days at MTSU: “Please, Dr. Mitchell. I need this class.”

They likely didn’t. At least not in the way you’d think. They didn’t need the class to graduate. They needed it to grow—not their cumulative credit hours, but their belief in themselves, in the transformative power of a Black college education, and in a history of unapologetic Blackness. 

Blackness that said, “I guess y’all thought we all got together on the corner of 18th and Jefferson to pick a spokesperson.” 

Blackness that said, “We didn’t ask you for a handout. Just take your foot off of our necks.”

A Blackness that still says: “We can’t breathe.”

We can’t breathe in a world where he once left us breathless, spellbound, and second-to-none.

Who will father us now?

I don’t know. I’m just a sad daughter of a father of four sons. 

We are Fiskites—“If you’ve got credits,” he’d say.

We are a family—“Forever!” he’d say.

Whether near or far, we are home. 

l to r: Brandon Owens, Dr. James Quirin, Mrs. Linda T. Wynn, Dr. Crystal A. deGregory and the late Reavis Mitchell. Pierson Lecture Series, Spring 2007.
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A historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, DR. CRYSTAL A. deGREGORY is a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate, convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. Follow her online at @HBCUstorian.

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