Born to Molly Scot and James McNair in Thornton, Arkansas, the now 102-year-old Mitchell McNair is still planting his garden of tomatoes, green beans, and squash, and is looking forward to next year’s garden. Already having lived twice the age of his father, who died in 1908 of TB, he is the youngest of 12 children, and the only one alive today. Mitchell never knew his dad because his dad died in Sept and Mitchell was born in October.
Raised by his mom, the family of six girls and six boys lived on their farm in certain poverty. His father left 60 acres, a mule, a horse and a small house, which burned down when Mitchell was just six.
The family was extremely poor. Mitchell says, “It was a sad upbringing and hard.” Taking in clothes to wash for a living, Mitchell’s mother had to sometimes borrow flour to make bread. She would come home with a basket on her head full of laundry, and Mitchell would build the fire around the wash pot to wash the clothes. Sometimes Mitchell’s mother or “mama” as he affectionately called her would have to make her own soap when there was not enough money to by detergent.
Mitchell didn’t have a pair of pants until he was almost nine. Instead of pants he played with his siblings in what amounted to a gown. He picked cotton to earn enough money to buy shoes for the winter. There were no cars in this farming community; in fact a car was quite a spectacular event.
Mitchell and his siblings would rush down to the road to watch an automobile pass by. Their mode of transport was a mule named Jack that Mitchell rode bare back, and a horse called Billy.
Although they lived in tough times, mom taught her children that “Christ is all” and this would be their password to Heaven. For a young boy who witnessed black men being dragged down the streets after a lynching, his mother’s words were what he hung on to.
This was a poor community where all they knew was cotton, corn and the saw mill.
At the age of 15, Mitchell made $2 a day working 10 hours at the saw mill to support his mom and sisters. In this town you went to school four months out of the year to 6th grade in a country school house or a church.
Mitchell attended and graduated from Metropolitan High School on a scholarship. Mitchell was around 20 years old when the depression hit from 1929-1932. He says, “Times were tough.” Men would go from town to town on the railroad looking for jobs but “there were no jobs.”
The Roosevelt administration changed everything. Now Mitchell worked for $2 per day for only 8 hours. But discrimination abounded, “The white man always made more than us…It was a discriminatory life” says Mitchell.
After coming to Los Angles in 1939, Mitchell went to City College for two years. Then came World War II from 1939-1945. As a merchant marine in 1943, Mitchell traveled several times around the world earning $5 per day plus salary, a far cry from anything he’d ever made before. He saw his first plane in the military. The first ship he went around the world in was the Mariposa. There was segregation in the military too. In those days Blacks worked in the Sewage Dept, and Mitchell was a cook. He trained on Catalina Island going through basic training. One of the tests of basic training was to swim through fire; they actually put oil on the water and Mitchell had to swim through it!
One day, the captain called him over and told Mitchell that he wanted him to be Chief Steward. The captain had noticed that Mitchell was not like most of the sailors. Generally, most of the sailors turned to women or drinking when on leave. The Captain sent him to the General to get approval for the job of Chief Steward. Mitchell knew he did not have the experience to be Chief Steward, “I barely knew how to cook!”, and the General agreed.
When Mitchell went back to his Captain to tell him that he had not been approved, the Captain said that he could do anything he wanted when they were out at sea. And so he did. Mitchell was Chief Steward with a Chief Steward discharge.
After the war, with $1,500 save up, Mitchell ran a lumber yard in Glendale, California. Having spent so many years at the saw mill, he knew how to run the yard. He made a deal with the owners of the yard that they would split their earnings with him. At the same time he got a job at “Water & Power” as a janitor where he worked 25 years, retiring as foreman.
After retiring, he owned a lighting maintenance company where he retired again, but not before training his grandson in the business. After that, in 1947, Mitchell ran two gas stations in Los Angeles, one on Adams Blvd, and one on Jefferson and Crenshaw Boulevards.
Mr. McNair, which is what I call him, has led an interesting and diverse life albeit a life of moderation. Married twice with two daughters and host of grandchildren, his story is one of survival; survival through poverty, the depression, discrimination, the war, the civil rights struggle and the loss of Denise McNair age 11, who was killed in the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama church on that fateful Sunday Sept 15, 1963.
Mitchel began investing in real estate in the 1970s in Los Angeles where he owned fourteen apartment buildings, and four units he built on 5th and 21st streets. This is how he developed his wealth.
When asked why he never gave up, Mitchell said “There is no reward for giving up.” He thanks God for his sound mind. Mitchell’s heroes are his mom who died in the 1960s, the ministers in his life who he credits with the fact that he never drank or gambled, and Obama whose shoes he would not want to be in. Mitchell was shocked that Obama won the presidency and even more shocked that he got support from southern states. He has such a positive outlook on life; it was difficult to get Mitchell to reflect on the discrimination or the poverty. He said that my questions made him think about things he has not thought about in a long time. He is not in any pain, rarely stresses about anything, and he is pretty even-keeled. I was impressed at how well he remembers dates, names, and places. I was impressed that he was not bitter or cynical in any way.
Mitchell says that after WW2, there were so many inventions. He has seen the advances of the car, the computer, the internet and witnessed the inauguration of the first black president of the United States.
Living in Los Angeles with his daughter Michelle, he goes to church every Sunday with his daughter Shirley where he is a Deacon, reads the paper daily, tends to his garden, and really likes PF Changs! He’s not slowing down; when he wants to do something he does it! When he wants to cook, or stew tomatoes, or can peaches, he does it. When he wants to put the trash cans out for the garbage man on trash day, he does it, much to Michelle’s chagrin!
When I asked him what he wants to be remembered for, he said, “I have no selection”. Mitchell is a man of faith, asking God to take charge of his mind. He lives to serve God and worship him and is grateful for every morning he awakes for Michelle to cook him breakfast.