Arkansas Blackbelt Voices Podcast History Louisiana

How an understanding of the past led to a brighter future

Education and exposure were not only central to cultivating Dr. Brian Mitchell’s love of history; they also helped change the trajectory of his life.

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Season 1 / Episode 6

Brian Mitchell, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, attributes his penchant for the past to two things: exposure and education.

Despite not having much money and being a single parent, Brian’s mother was intentional about exposing her son to cultural experiences. After school, she would take Brian to different museums across Chicago. He assumed it was something all children did.

“We would go to the Museum of Science and Industry. We would go to the Field Museum. We’d go to the Art Institute. I did this every day as a little kid, and I just assumed every other little kid in America did the same thing.

“I grew to love history; I grew to love the past.”

Dr. Brain K. Mitchell, assistant professor of history, University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock/Rayna A. Mackey)
Dr. Brain K. Mitchell, assistant professor of history, University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock/Rayna A. Mackey)

Brian’s mother moved her family from Chicago back to New Orleans in 1976 after her youngest brother was killed. She wanted to return home to be active in his court case, which Mitchell said was billed as “the last lynching in America.”

Mitchell’s uncle, Richard Dunn, was a sophomore in college when he was shot and killed by a group of white night riders while at a bus stop with friends. He was returning home from a fundraiser in support of Gary Tyler, a Black man who was wrongfully convicted for shooting and killing a white student. The perpetrator in Dunn’s case received a 20-year sentence and was ultimately released from prison after being pardoned by the governor.

Despite justice not being served, the family remained in New Orleans, and Mitchell spent a lot of time with his great-grandmother. He would stop by her house every day after school and listen as she told him stories about his family while they looked at old pictures.

“This also piqued my interest in the past. And it’s from that, that I began to embrace history.”

Mitchell didn’t think much about history as a career until he got to college, where two of his history professors were Black. He was able to see himself as a historian because of their example. Now that he’s in front of the classroom, Dr. Mitchell teaches history from the perspective of marginalized people.

“We’ve all grown up hearing the narrative that America wants to teach – that America was founded by great white men and everybody else are just supporting characters in this narrative,” he said. “But that’s not the truth. So, I try to offer my students something different. And most of them, once given a choice, realize that the story makes sense when all of the characters are put in their proper places.

“It makes sense why America is successful. It makes sense why we do the things we do. It makes sense why we live where we live. It makes sense when you tell them the story of urban renewal why poverty is so endemic to Black communities.”

Mitchell said he is blessed that he gets to do what he does every day.

“Hopefully, that’s my little way of changing America is by changing the minds of the people I come in contact with every day and being an important influence in their lives.”

Education and exposure were not only central to cultivating Dr. Mitchell’s love of history; they also helped change the trajectory of his life.

“My mother caring enough to try to have a better life for me and expose me to things I wouldn’t have seen any other way, and education – teachers caring about me and going to good schools that provided me with opportunities and an excellent education – are two overwhelming things that have made the biggest difference in my life. If either one of those two things was not present in my life, I would be an entirely different person.”

Dr. Mitchell posits that education is also the key to helping disenfranchised communities across the Black Belt.

“Many Black Belt towns are exactly like Elaine. People were used by society and used by the elites to do their bidding, and when they were no longer of use to them, they were discarded.

“These communities are largely Black, very poor, and are controlled by a white elite that has probably controlled that community as long as that community has existed. And the only hope that many people who are living in the Black Belt have is education.”


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