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One-on-One with Mary Mitchell

She is a crusader, a noted newspaper columnist and an authority on race relations in Chicago. She is the outspoken journalist, Mary Mitchell, whose column runs three times weekly in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Chicago Stories traces her rise from the public housing projects to the top ranks of Chicago journalism. Mitchell remembers, "A lot of the kids [there] had issues with me. I was a light-skinned, green-eyed skinny girl living in this environment. And I was a twin. That made me different." Mitchell's sister Marie Crossley adds, "[The kids] picked on us a lot. And my sister didn't fight. . .her weapon was words." Mitchell and her sister felt unsafe playing outside in the neighborhood and learned to entertain themselves inside, chiefly by reading, which they learned together. When Mitchell was twelve, a growing family forced her parents to move to a bigger apartment in the rougher Clarence Darrow Homes high rise. There, books from the "library bus" proved to be her "great escape," recalls Mitchell. She graduated from Dunbar Vocational High School in 1967 with the skills to become a secretary, but found that, despite her abilities, the only work she could find was in the mailroom. "The bottom line was that no company had hired a black secretary," she tells Callaway, "It just wasn't happening in 1967."

After being rejected (unfairly, she believed) for a high-level secretarial job at the law firm where she worked, Mary reassessed her situation and decided her prospects would improve greatly with a college degree. She had been taking occasional classes, but in 1989, stepped up her course load to earn her degree from Columbia College.

Mitchell switched her major from creative writing to journalism, taking a class with instructor and Chicago Sun-Times reporter Don Hayner, who was immediately impressed. "Mary was in the front row," he remembers, "and asking plenty of questions." Another of Mitchell's professors, Sun-Times columnist P.J. Bednarski, encouraged her to apply to the newspaper, which was offering its first internship for minorities. "He told me that he thought that I had what it took to be a journalist and that I could be a writer," says Mitchell. "He believed in me." She had never worked for a newspaper, and didn't even know what a deadline was. Nevertheless, she worked tirelessly hard, and in 1991 after earning her degree, the Sun-Times hired her as its education reporter. Two years later, her editors paired her with Hayner to write a successful series on race, called "The Great Divide." Mitchell's contribution to the series showed her editors that she had a unique voice in Chicago journalism. Less than a year later, the paper's editor-in-chief offered her a column of her own, which quickly became her voice to spotlight racial issues and fight discrimination.

On the program, Mitchell discusses some of her most memorable subjects including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, "man-sharing" among African American women and a racial incident at Wrigley Field where drunken white fans taunted her as "Aunt Jemima." She also expresses her views on the state of race relations in Chicago and looks into some of her plans for the future.

My Son, 23, Thinks I'm Too Black Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 1993
By Mary A. Mitchell (under her Mary A. Johnson byline)

In-Studio Discussion about the "Too Black" Column
John Callaway: Years ago, there was a piece that had a headline on it, reading "My Son, 23, Thinks I am Too Black." What was that about?

Mary Mitchell: My son grew up in a more diverse neighborhood than I did. I grew up in an all-black neighborhood, went to all black schools. The first real business relationships that I had was after I graduated from high school and moved into the work force. Well, he didn't. So, for him, my Afro, my wanting to make sure that we shop black and buy black, our observance of Kwanza – those things, for a young man at his age, he thought, "My goodness, you are too black. You are too into Afro-centrism. The world is not all black." That's how he saw it. That was one of the first columns I wrote for the Sun-Times.

Callaway: Do I presume that's a conversation that has evolved over the years?

Mitchell: Yes it has.

Callaway: I presume that you keep coming back to those issues.

Mitchell: Yes, we do. As a family, we talk about them, and I talk about them as a columnist. Plus, you grow. As a columnist, I have grown. Some things I started off thinking, when I started writing columns six years ago, I don't believe in anymore.

Callaway: Such as?

Mitchell: Let's go back to the Afro-centrism issue. There was a time I was really into buying Black. I thought "You gotta buy Black." But then I found out, over time, when you really look at it, that there is a responsibility for black business owners to provide good service. There are two sides to that story. I feel now that to do business with those who want to do business with you and give you good service is just as important as buying black. And I have evolved to that point.

On Writing About Her Family
Callaway: You have written several columns about your son who is involved, to your great regret, in gang activities; about your son, who is unemployed. There is nothing off limits to you as a writer. How does that work within the family dynamics? What does your son say to you when he wakes up and reads about himself in the paper?

Mitchell: Well, this is very interesting. One of the things I have always done, is that I have never used my kids' names. I always call them "my 19-year-old," "my 20-year-old." That's a little privacy I give them. But the other thing is that my children understand what I do. They understand that I am a storyteller. And so they know that when things go on, I'll tell my own stories. I'll tell about my own failures, I'll tell about my own successes. They understand that I'm doing it because I see a bigger message. And if someone can read that story – if some mother was struggling with her son who was somehow moving towards a gang – if they read that story, maybe they will then try to get help. Maybe they will see a little bit of themselves in our little family life, and know that they are not so horrible, that this is life, that this is the way some families operate.

Callaway: Because again, in those columns, you take yourself to account.

Mitchell: Yes, I do.

Callaway: You say: "Oh, Mary, what is your story all along his road to having been involved in a gang?"

Mitchell: Exactly.

Callaway: You always ask yourself the most uncomfortable questions.

Mitchell: And we have to. I think the problem sometimes with writers is that we think we are "way up here," that we are perfect and we can look at the world through this perfect lens. We are not perfect, we are human beings, and our humanity has to show. For people to really get the message and approve the quality of their own life, our humanity has to show.

On Her Own Racism
Callaway: It seems to me one of the most appealing things about your writing is that you take us all on, for our racism, our fears, our biases, etc. Over the years, you pound us, and pound us and pound us. And then you turn around and you pound yourself. I will never forget the column that you wrote about moving in to Maywood and you wanted to live in a majority African-American community. That was your assumption. And then one day you wake up after you have bought this place and you found that you are surrounded by a great many Hispanics. And you are not "Miss Open Heart" that particular day. Right?

Mitchell: Right.

Callaway: What were you feeling? What did you expect?

Mitchell: Well, you have to know yourself. I have expressed that in a column because what I was trying to say and what I was trying to get people to see is that we all have our biases. You have to recognize what they are. I moved to Maywood twelve years ago, and I am still there. Even though I woke up that day and realized I did not move in the predominantly African American community that I thought I was moving into, I stayed. I don't want to be one of these people who turn and run because people are different.

Callaway: But you admitted that you thought: "Well, what are the schools going to be like?"

Mitchell: Exactly, but my kids went to that school.

Callaway: "I have not lived with Hispanics," you said.

Mitchell: And I have learned how to live with Hispanics. And hopefully, Hispanics have learned how to live with African-Americans. I think that if you recognize what your own biases and fears are, then you are able to have better relationships with people who are not like you.

A Sister's Perspective: Words from Marie Crossley (Mary Mitchell's twin)

I think [my sister's story] is about overcoming obstacles, to rise above whatever circumstances you might find yourself going up in. And I think her story is about hope. Her story is about a lot of hard work. And her story is about doing the right thing for herself, for her family, for her community.

Growing up in the Chicago Housing projects was definitely tough. You had to learn how to fight. It was difficult for us because the one thing you don't want to do in the projects is stand out. And we stood out from the very beginning because we were twins, and so that brought a lot of attention to us. Also we had a different eye color than most of the kids in the neighborhood. And so they, they picked on us a lot. And my sister, she didn't fight. She had a way with words. And her weapon was words. Me, I didn't have that same way with words. I would have just as soon finish the whole thing and get it over with. So I did a lot of taking care of her. I became her protector.

I think it caused us to strive a little bit harder to know that we were not going to live in the projects for the rest of our lives. My dad always taught us that no matter what your circumstances are – remember this is a man that was taking care in the 1960's of ten children, a family of ten, and in that day, being an African American man, you know, he wasn't making a whole bunch of money, but he fed us, and although we didn't have a lot of clothes, we were clean, we were neat – he taught us that with hard work(and we watched him go to work every day), it doesn't really matter what your surroundings were. You could be whatever you wanted to be. And I think the projects sort of made us realize that there was something better and we could have that. We just had to get through this very rough time, which was the projects. Now today, I can't imagine living in the projects.

I'm proud of my sister, definitely. for what she is, for the work that she does. That's what I'm proud of mostly. The stories, they're great. I love her columns. I love her columns because I know how much work she puts into 'em. I know how much integrity she has. For what most people don't understand about my sister is that she doesn't just arbitrarily write stories that she doesn't believe in, and she's willing to go that extra mile. She's willing to take the chance that someone isn't gonna like it. Someone who's in power isn't gonna like what she has to say if it means telling the truth. And what truth is that? That's the truth that she sees that she thinks that we should be thinking about. And sometimes in our community and especially in the African American community she steps on a lot of toes because we have a tendency to think that some things need not be spoken about simply because she's an African American woman. And so I'm proud that she has such integrity, that she doesn't allow peoples' opinions, she doesn't allow politicians, she doesn't allow family, anyone, to dictate to her what the truth is. And that's probably what makes me most proud.

I define Mary Mitchell as that hard-hitting, in-your-face columnist that basically is just not afraid to stand up to anybody. I don't think people think that she has feelings because sometimes when she writes about an issue that is not popular, she gets such incredible, hateful e-mails. She'll call me up demoralized because someone has written her some very hateful mail simply because they did not agree with her opinion. And her rights to even have an opinion. And what I guess most people don't see is that there's such a soft side to her. There's a side that cares enough to go down to Child Protective Services and claim two more children to raise. There's a side that wants to make sure that my mom is always provided for and always taken care of. And she's the one, when I was in California, that held the family together. When her oldest niece was dying of breast cancer, she was still doing a story about the little girl who had no flowers for her funeral. They were at the same funeral home. That's the side that people don't see.

I think she's beautiful. Strong. Phenomenal. My sister is just very, very special. And she's paid tremendous dues to be where she is.

I have a story that I wanted to tell, but I've been working my way up to it. As little girls, we liked to dance and sing. And so we were going to be the Doublemint girls. We were going to be the Doublemint Twins. And we had worked out the song and everything. And we would do it for my dad, and say, "Okay, Dad, we're gonna be on television." And we were black. And so my Dad says to us one day, "You're not gonna be the Doublemint Twins. They don't have any black Doublemint Twins." And we were like, so crushed. Because we thought the only requirement was to be identical. And so I want to share that story, because that occurred over 40 years ago, 45, almost 50 years ago, and look, now we have two black women representing Doublemint. They're not twins, but they're pretty darn close.

I remember when I realized that there was a difference in color. We grew up in the projects. Everybody was black. But one day, I think we were going to go to the Moody Bible Institute. My momma said that we could go downtown by ourselves, get on the bus, ride up north, go to the Moody Bible Institute and I think we were gonna see a play or something else was going on. And we always had this idea that we wanted to go to have a milkshake, a malted milk. 'Cause my mom used to, whenever she took us downtown, she would stop off at the local drug store and we would always get to the counter, we would always have a malted milk. And so me and Mary was gonna do that by ourselves. I think we were about 12. And we took a wrong turn and we ended somewhere unknown, near north side, in a restaurant. And we walked in the door and we're just so happy 'cause we're going through this town and we're gonna get this malted milk. And all of a sudden I realized that there was no one else like us, that looked like us. And the people in there just all turned around, and they stared at us until we just backed out the door. And that's when I realized that there was discrimination.

Telling the Story
By program producer Alexandra Silets

Hearing Mary Mitchell talk about spending her childhood navigating the perils of public housing was both gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring. This is one tough lady. And a great storyteller.

Mary and her family allowed us into their lives for a week. No matter where we were in the city--on the South Side, on the West Side, in the loop, people always approached Mary with respect and a bit of awe.

I asked her about being a celebrity.

"I think that's probably the biggest surprise. I thought that I'd be recognized for and honored for the work that I do. And that's terms of a journalist, that people would be appreciative of the fact that I'm a journalist. I didn't expect to be recognized as, 'that's Mary Mitchell.' Or stopped on the street, or stopped in restaurants. Or people coming up to me saying, 'oh you're Mary Mitchell, oh my goodness, can I have your autograph?' That's been weird. But I think that's a reflection of Chicago. Chicago loves its journalists. Either they have to love 'em or hate 'em. And again the people who love me really love me. The people who hate me really hate me."

Her twin, Marie, has often been mistaken for her more famous sister. Even Mayor Daley was confused when he saw Marie at the ceremony re-opening the Sears Tower Sky Deck weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"There was a woman coming toward me and she said, 'Oh, Mary!' and I'm thinking 'uh-oh,' but before I could say, 'I'm not Mary,' because that's my standard line, the Mayor reaches around her and grabs my hand, and he's shaking my hand, and I'm flabbergasted. I'm thinking, how do I tell him in a nice way, that I'm not Mary? So I'm saying very quietly, 'I'm not Mary, but it's okay,'and he says loudly, 'What? You're not Mary?' And I say 'But it's okay; I'm her sister. It's okay. You know, don't panic.' So it was funny. And I immediately came upstairs and I called my sister, and I said, 'Well, this is itI've finally had it.' And she thought it was so funny."

Mary wrote about that incident in a column a few days later. But even that didn't seem to help Marie.

"I think that the column sort of backfired on me because now they don't think I'm Mary Mitchell, now they call me her sister. So I lost my name in the process. But it's funny. It's just something that I have to get used to."

The hardest part about producing this show was having to edit all Mary's fascinating stories. I hope you enjoy watching the program and much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Alexandra Silets has been at WTTW for five years and has worked on almost that many different series here. She started working with John Callaway while he hosted "Chicago Tonight" and is back working with him again on "Chicago Stories." She also produced "Chicago Week In Review" with Joel Weisman for three years and won an Emmy Award for her work on "The Cheap Show." Silets has also been a news writer and field producer for other television stations. She earned a Masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is happily married and the mother of one son.

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