Friday, August 27, 2010

Mitchell, Margaret, Gone With The Wind Fame and Black Atlanta (c) by Polly Guerin

Dear Margaret Mitchell: We all remember you as the celebrated Pulitzer Prize author of “Gone With The Wind,” the epic novel about the Civil War and Reconstruction but you were a woman determined to succeed in a place that most women of your time would never had considered entering. Your public life revolved around your life as a novelist, but your role as a benefactor only surfaced years after your demise and revealed your extraordinary involvement with Atlanta’s African American community. As expected of any Jazz Age debutant flapper, Margaret Mitchell was no wall flower and joined the newest dances introduced to Atlanta’s younger set. However, as a result of her concerns about Black Atlanta she was ostracized from the Junior League.
Margaret Mitchell’s involvement with the African American community began when she was a 19-year-old debutante. She was working on several projects with Atlanta's Black community and being a proper Junior Leaguer, whose mission was community service; Margaret chose to work in the city’s Black clinics. It was a remarkable move considering that it was a time when segregation was the law of the land and the Ku Klux Klan regularly held rallies. Obviously her work with the Black clinic was the reason that she was rejected from the conservative Junior League.
Margaret Mitchell’s exposure to the black community no doubt also sharpened her sensitivities about old Atlanta and the battles the Confederate Army fought there. She grew up listening to stories of the Civil War that she heard first from her parents and great aunts and later from Confederate veterans who regaled the girl with battlefield stories. Such a background fueled her imagination as did the fact that the ancestry of the Mitchell family was not unlike the O-Hara’s of Gone with the Wind. Gone With the Wind was published in June 1936 and became an equally famous motion picture starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.
With these two successes Margaret Mitchell became an international celebrity and a celebrated Atlanta citizen. It is no doubt this notoriety brought her to the attention of Dr. Benjamin Mays, the new president of the historically black Morehouse College. He may or may not have known about Margaret Mitchell’s former involvement with the Black community, the question is mute; her celebrity had put her in the limelight. In 1941, when he realized that some of his promising students needed funds to put them through school and with fund raising on his mind it appears that Margaret was the first person he approached. She agreed to an anonymous donation of $80, enough at that time to put a student through one year of school. Dr. Mays later wrote Margaret a letter describing the impact her gift had on its young recipient. So moved by this disclosure she made arrangements to make the same contribution on a regular basis. Again, Dr. Mays agreed to keep the scholarship fund a secret, even for many years after her death.
The fund’s donor, Margaret Mitchell so long kept a secret, was revealed when Dr. Otis Smith, the first African-American in the state of Georgia to be certified as a pediatrician told the story to the Margaret Mitchell House, in Atlanta. Despite years of work as a teacher, shoe shiner, and field hand when he had been a first-year student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., he told Dr. Mays he simply had no more money to continue his studies. Dr. Mays sent him back to Nashville and said cryptically, “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of it.”
Although Dr. Smith’s tuition and fees were completely paid; it was 35 years later (Margaret Mitchell had long ago died in 1949, struck by a speeding car while crossing the intersection of Peachtree Street) before Dr. Mays revealed the source of the gift, one of about 40 to 50 Margaret Mitchell had made to African American medical students. So our dear Margaret Mitchell, of Gone With the Wind Fame, was a determined woman who succeeded as an enlightened Southerner. She championed the Black community in Atlanta in other ways and also supported the early effort to desegregate the city’s police department. To quote Mitchell, “I want peace; I want to see if somewhere there isn’t something left in life of charm and grace.”

No comments:

Post a Comment