Constance Mitchell, 90; 'trailblazer,' civil rights activist
Constance “Connie” Mitchell, a civil rights activist and prominent figure in the local black Catholic community, died Dec. 14, 2018. She was 90.
“She was a trailblazer,” recalled Jean Pryor, a longtime friend and fellow activist. “She was always fighting for social justice. … She had an impact in every arena, but her style of achieving, it was not abrasive. She did it with class, and she got a lot of results. People loved her. She was a lady of class and dignity.”
A native of New Rochelle, N.Y., Mitchell and her late husband, John, moved to Rochester in 1950 and began attending Immaculate Conception Parish in Rochester, Pryor noted. They later worshipped at Our Lady of Good Counsel before becoming longtime members of St. Monica Parish.
In the early 1960s, Mitchell became the first woman and the first African-American to serve on the Monroe County Board of Supervisors, which later became the Monroe County Legislature.
“In an era when women didn’t really hold many prominent positions, she excelled in that role,” noted Mrs. Mitchell’s close friend Bill Johnson, who served as Rochester’s mayor from 1994-2006. “Her legacy is her service. A true public servant, she didn’t fade away after her elected office ended in the 1960s.”
The Mitchells marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., noted Pryor, and in 1965 the couple marched in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Back at home in Rochester, the Mitchells were cofounders of Action for a Better Community and were heavily involved with such community organizations as United Way of Rochester, the Urban League of Rochester and Program for Rochester to Interest Students in Science and Mathematics (PRISM), where she served as program director for more than a decade, Pryor said. Mitchell was driven to improve conditions for all Rochesterians, and especially for her fellow African-Americans, Pryor said.
“In the early years there was not a lot going with African-Americans. So many people had to fight for housing, for jobs, even though they were (highly educated) people. There were still so many barriers closed to African-Americans,” Pryor recalled.
Mrs. Mitchell was instrumental in the creation of the Urban League’s Black Scholars Program, Pryor added.
“At that time we didn’t have a lot of money, but as you know, that program has (given out) millions and millions of dollars, and some of the students have gone on to be doctors and lawyers. She always felt the youth should be afforded an opportunity,” Pryor said.
Mrs. Mitchell was highly respected in the Rochester community, and even long after she retired from public service, her advice on various matters was frequently sought out and highly respected, Johnson said.
Local politicians and community leaders responded to news of Mrs. Mitchell’s death with statements of praise for her work as well as her influence in the community.
Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said Mrs. Mitchell, as the first African-American and the first woman to serve in county-level elected office in Monroe County, was an inspiration.
“Constance Mitchell was a living testament to the power that everyday people possess to make change through public service,” Dinolfo said in a Dec. 14 statement. “Her loss will leave an incredible void, but will also beckon for the next generation of local change-makers to step forward in her place. On behalf of a grateful community, I thank Constance for service and example, and I offer my deepest condolences to her family, friends and colleagues.”
Mrs. Mitchell was a role model in the fight to bring civil rights and social justice to Rochester, noted Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, who referred to Mrs. Mitchell as “one of my personal heroes.”
“She continued to give back to this community in many ways and she remained a source of strength and support for my family and me late into her life. I am living example of the fact that she continued to lift as she climbed,” Warren said in a Dec. 14 statement. “I encourage all of Rochester’s citizens to take a moment today to offer a prayer of gratitude for the life of Connie Mitchell. We can never forget those whose shoulders we stand upon. We can never forget those whose sacrifice made our own achievements possible.”
Mrs. Mitchell is predeceased by her husband, John Mitchell. She is survived by her daughter, Constance M. Jefferson; grandson, Gregory Jefferson; two great-grandchildren, Gregory Trevon Jefferson and Jude Sorvor Jefferson; sister-in-law, Ruth Mitchell; as well as nieces, nephews, cousins, other relatives and friends.
Mrs. Mitchell will lie in state Dec. 20 and 21, 2018, from 4 to 7 p.m. at St. Monica Church, located at 831 Genesee St. in Rochester. Her funeral Mass will be celebrated at St. Monica on Dec. 22, 2018, at 10 a.m. Interment will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.