The Honorable Parren J. Mitchell (1922-1967). (AFRO archive)

By Megan Sayles
AFRO Business Writer
Report for America Corps Member

When considering the legacy of Parren Mitchell, many achievements come to mind. He joined the U.S. Army in the midst of World War II, earning a Purple Heart for his service in Italy. He was the first African-American student to take graduate classes at the University of Maryland in College Park, receiving a master’s degree in sociology in 1952 after successfully suing the school for admission.

Perhaps his most significant accomplishment, Mitchell became the first African-American representative from Maryland after winning an election to the House of Representatives in 1970. 

The Baltimore-bred activist dedicated his life to public service, and much of his work in Congress centered on advocating for the Black entrepreneur. 

Born to Clarence Mitchell Sr. and Elsie Davis Mitchell in 1922, Mitchell and his older brother, Clarence Mitchell Jr., participated in demonstrations protesting segregation in Baltimore from a young age, according to the U.S. House of Representatives. These experiences spurred Mitchell’s interest in promoting civil rights. 

Before his election, Mitchell served as executive secretary of the Maryland Commission on Interracial Problems and Relations, led an antipoverty program in Baltimore and headed fair housing organization Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., according to the U.S. House of Representatives.  

Mitchell’s passion for Black business emerged while serving as a member of the Small Business Committee during his time in office. There, his legislative focus of advancing small and minority-owned businesses materialized. 

In 1976, Mitchell added an amendment to a $4-billion public works program that obliged state and local governments applying for federal contracts to reserve 10% of the funds for minority-owned businesses, according to the U.S. House of Representatives. He later described this endeavor as his proudest legislative achievement. 

In 1980, Mitchell founded the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund to offer legal services to minority entrepreneurs, according to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

A couple years later, he steered a bill through the House that set aside funding for small businesses owned by those who were economically disadvantaged, according to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Mitchell continued his crusade for Black and small business when he fought to remove restrictions on the number of companies that were allowed to compete for spare parts contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense, according the U.S. House of Representatives.  

As an outspoken anti-war dissident, Mitchell consistently called for presidential administrations to redirect part of the military’s budget to domestic social programs that would foster a more equitable economy for U.S. citizens. 

In 1987, Mitchell’s congressional career came to a close, but his influence has stood the test of time. 

A few months before his death, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (MD-07) introduced the Parren Mitchell Minority Business Education and Empowerment Act of 2019. 

The bill, which is now sponsored by Cummings’ predecessor Kweisi Mfume, seeks to start a pilot program at the Small Business Administration to award grants to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) so that they can establish entrepreneurship curriculum and Small Business Development Centers on campus.

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