Charles H. Mitchner Sr., 96, Pullman Co. porter who wrote 1999 memoir

October 10, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Charles Harold Mitchner Sr., a retired insurance agent and former Pullman Co. porter whose memoir, A Rock in a Weary Land, chronicled his life and struggle against racism, died of cancer Saturday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 96.

An inveterate talker and storyteller who was blessed with an impeccable memory, Mr. Mitchner enjoyed filling his home on Howard Park Avenue with "drop-ins," who would sit for hours listening and talking with him about a variety of subjects, said family members.

"He loved listening, learning and talking about current events, whether local or worldwide. It was not uncommon for folks to hang out past midnight, just chatting with him," said Diane M. Brown, a granddaughter who lives in Columbia.

Mr. Mitchner was 93 when he decided to dictate his life story to Doris N. Stark, former dean of nursing at Coppin State College, and Alice H. Cornelison, a Howard University health care and ethics professor and author of a history of blacks in Howard County, who also edited the book. It was published in 1999.

"He had an incredible memory for stories and events, and when we went to the library to check them, we found out he was right on target," said Mrs. Cornelison, of Ellicott City.

"Charles was a light-hearted man who had gotten beyond the bitterness of the past and had lived long enough that he no longer needed to hang racial tags on people. He didn't want to pass on to the young men he was mentoring that anger. He always said, `If you carry hatred, it keeps you from being a productive person,'" she said.

Born in Raleigh, N.C., he was a great-grandson of Alexander Patterson, a Civil War veteran who served with the legendary 54th Colored Massachusetts Regiment, which was the subject of the movie Glory several years ago.

He moved to Baltimore's Harlem Park as a youth, and after graduating from Douglass High School in 1926 he went to work for Baltimore Copper Works Co. in Canton. He became an outspoken advocate for fellow black workers who were denied membership in the all-white union and were exposed to unsafe conditions on the job.

He took a job as a Pullman porter during World War II, working on troop, hospital and passenger trains.

It was in the South that Mr. Mitchner experienced firsthand the viciousness of racism when he was taunted for walking streets with white co-workers or entering the white-only sections in railroad stations.

He was escorted out of the Mobile, Ala., station at gunpoint by a policeman who placed a pistol against his ear.

"He told me I wasn't to be in the white section of the station. While we were walking he said, `If you run, I will blow yo' damn brains out,'" he related in the memoir.

Mr. Mitchner was proud that he was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and had been selected to work on the special train that transported delegates to the United Nations' first meeting in San Francisco in 1945.

"I had seen so much cruelty against black people that when World War II was over, and I came home from my travel on the railroad, I had so much hatred in me it was pitiful," he said.

Mr. Mitchner later worked as an insurance agent and manager for three black insurance companies, Mutual Benefit Life, North Carolina Mutual and Southern Life, before retiring in 1976.

Active in civic affairs, he served as president of the 5th District Democratic Club and as a director in the 1960s of Home Ownership Plan Endeavor (HOPE), a program whose goal was decent housing for low-income Baltimore families. He was a founding member and treasurer of Heritage United Church of Christ.

"He admonished young people, saying, `Get as much education as possible, and go as far as you can. Never stop learning; be honest and true to people; don't live beyond your means; don't try to con people; give everybody a fair shake; weigh things out before making a move; listen to other people's opinions; and do not believe in things you hear,'" said Mrs. Brown, his granddaughter.

Mr. Mitchner remained physically active into his 90s, regularly exercising in a gym and swimming on Saturdays.

"Secret to a long life? There is none," he said. "Keep your body properly. Eat the right foods, and treat everybody like you want to be treated."

His marriage many years ago to Natalie Campbell Phelps ended in divorce. He was married in 1954 to Ernestine Gorham Fox, who survives him.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

He is also survived by three sons, Charles H. Mitchner of Saginaw, Mich., Lloyd Mitchner of Randallstown and Donald Mitchner of Felton, Calif.; a daughter, Norma M. Lamb of Winters, Calif.; a stepdaughter, Consuella Newton of Powder Springs, Ga.; 19 other grandchildren; 21 great-grandchildren; and nine great-great-grandchildren.

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