A Light in the Darkness (Part 3)

For good reason, Emmitt Mitchell speaks proudly of the women in his family heritage, who despite the darkness thrust upon them, chose to live in the light and glorify Christ despite their sometimes life-crushing circumstances. Nancy Mallory, the fourteen-year-old slave who was forced to add to her burdens eight children from her owner. Malvinna Allen, who watched her only real father figure tortured to death by her biological father. Mary McMillian, whose husband died on the field of battle during World War I. Alice Franklin, basically becoming a widow and single mom after her husband went missing during the Great Depression.

“We have a strong matriarchal family,” Emmitt Mitchell says proudly about these women, “and those old women found a way to make it work.”

Like Esther from the Old Testament, made queen “for such a time as this,” in order to save her people. Rahab, who hid the Israelite spies in her home that would lead directly to their victory and her salvation. Or Naomi, a widow who had lost not only her husband but her grown sons as well, forced to return home and find a way to start over. These women and countless others before and after them were strong despite the burdens forced upon them and found ways to persevere through life and “make it work.” They lived in the light, not in the dark, as Mitchell would also describe as his family’s way of survival, despite the hardship and tragedies surrounding them.

And Emmitt’s mother, Hazel, would uphold the matriarchal mantle as strongly and proudly as the women before her. 

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By the time Hazel McMillian was fourteen years old, she had become such a skilled and sought-after beautician in her community that her mom told her she had no choice but to drop out of high school and start earning money for the family. So at the time when other girls her age were reading Shakespeare, learning geometry, and eyeing boys from across the classroom, Hazel was beginning her career, because that’s what was necessary to help her family put food on the table.

But that was not the end of her education. Not in the least. Emmitt recalls when he was a young boy in the ‘50s, seeing his mom daily grabbing her Bible and notebooks, turning on the radio to any number of preachers, and taking detailed notes as she studied intensely what she knew was life’s most essential resource—the Word of God.

Before long, she became what was called a “Good News Teacher” in their local neighborhood, where countless kids, week after week, would come to the Mitchell home to learn about Jesus. Emmitt recalls fondly the flannel board she would pull out every week for her lessons, and the strong encouragement she gave to memorize a new scripture verse every time they met. The deal that “Mother Mitchell,” as the kids came to lovingly refer to Hazel, made was that if they memorized their scripture verse, then they would get to have cookies and Kool-Aid. “I never missed getting my cookies and Kool-Aid,” Emmitt says today.

And apparently, not many kids did. Hazel would become one of the strongest influences not only in Emmitt’s life, but also in thousands of others in Wichita, across multiple generations. Even today, Emmitt still runs into people who mark Mother Mitchell and her weekly “Good News Bible Club” as what steered their parents or grandparents toward Jesus, affecting the course of their family’s lives and souls forever. 

With not even a high school education, let alone any kind of Bible college or seminary degree, Hazel still understood what was most important—to learn God’s Word and serve the Lord anyway she could. So that’s exactly what she did with her life. “She went on to become a great Bible teacher and a passionate spokesperson for the Lord,” Emmitt says about her today. “She spoke Scripture like it was a language.”

Injustice in the Five and Dime Store

Several years before her days as Mother Mitchell, Hazel would have to rely on her love for the Lord and His Word, to carry her through some dark times of her own as a young wife and mother in Guthrie, Oklahoma. In 1943, when she was eighteen and working as a beautician, she met and married Thurmon Mitchell, a teenager himself, not long before he was drafted into the army and sent over to France.

When Thurmon returned home in 1945, not embraced by his country as a hero of war but instead seen as even less worthy than a German enemy soldier, he spent his next few years struggling with alcoholism and a violent temper. While things at home were not always bad—Emmitt was born in 1946—Thurmon’s ups and downs were down enough for Hazel to have to leave him for a time as he worked to figure out his place in a country that did not even want him there.

One day during her time as a single mom, Hazel experienced for herself her own story of injustice that represented exactly what Thurmon had been struggling to reconcile with since coming home from the war. When Emmitt was four or five years old, Hazel, still in her midtwenties, brought her son with her to a Five and Dime store so she could pick out patterns for a dress. It was an extraordinarily normal outing for a mother and son, shopping freely at the local store, with money she had earned as a talented and respected beautician in the community.

As it turned out, a white lady about the same age as Hazel was also in the store, picking out dress patterns as well. Thankfully, for Emmitt’s sake, she had a young son of her own with her, who was as anxious as Emmitt to play and make the best out of this not-very-exciting outing with his mom. So the two boys picked up some toy guns and holsters they found in the store’s toy section and ran around playing cowboys. 

The color of their skin didn’t matter, not to these boys. Certainly not when there were adventures to go on and “bad guys” to protect themselves from in the local Five and Dime. They were simply grateful to find an ally to waste the time away with. 

As it was a hot summer day, and there was no air conditioning back then in most places like these, Emmitt’s new friend took a timeout in the middle of their shootout to get a long, cool drink of water from the fountain. When he had finished taking his sip, Emmitt stepped right up to take a much-needed drink of his own. He thought nothing of it, and neither did the other boy. Unfortunately, Emmitt’s innocent sip of water did not escape the attention of his new friend’s mother.

“You can’t drink from that water fountain!” she screamed at young Emmitt. “That’s the white water fountain!”

Stunned and confused at what he had done wrong, Emmitt didn’t know how to respond right then. But that’s okay, because his mom did. With dress patterns in hand, she flew over to the young white woman in a rage and let her know she wouldn’t stand for anyone talking to her little boy like that. “Why would you insult and intimidate such a young boy like that?” she asked the young mom, no doubt intending to do some intimidation of her own.

With tears streaming down her face, all the young white woman could find to say was, “But it’s the law!”

Remembering this story all these decades later, Emmitt does so with an almost unfair amount of grace. About the mom who had yelled at him for simply taking a sip of water on a hot summer day, he said, “She was probably a Christian lady, from a good home. All things being equal, she and my mom probably would’ve been friends. But things weren’t equal.”

The Matriarch’s Greatest Impact—Her Husband

No, things definitely were not equal for blacks living in America back then, as both Hazel and Thurmon had experienced firsthand. And truly, they wouldn’t be for still a very long time. But in 1954, with the invaluable help of Hazel’s unconditional love and respect for him, Thurmon Mitchell decided it was time to make the same decision that generations before him had made and to start living in the light himself. As Emmitt tells the story today, after reuniting with his family and moving them to Wichita, Kansas, one day his dad decided that it was time to stop drinking and start serving the Lord.

And he never had another drink for the rest of his life. 

After returning home from the war, Thurmon had gone to college on the GI bill and become quite skilled in carpentry, which he utilized while working for his brother’s construction company as he simultaneously battled his demons and struggled to keep his family together. When he finally straightened his life out and moved his family to Wichita, he continued working construction by day, as he cleaned a restaurant at night. 

Whether he worked as hard as he did more so to help distract him from alcohol or to provide for his family, his hard work ethic did not go unnoticed by Emmitt. In fact, many nights Emmitt would work with Thurmon at the restaurant to help him clean up faster so that his dad could come home earlier and get some rest before starting another long day. It was during these nights together at the restaurant when the father and son would grow closer together as Thurmon shared his stories from the war and about his life growing up. Like Emmitt’s grandma McMillian, his dad also was a great storyteller, captivating his son with his stories to the point of being able to take Emmitt’s attention away from mopping floors and scrubbing filthy toilets. Thurmon and his stories made the work fun for Emmitt.

As Thurman continued turning his life around and dedicating his life to the Lord and to the community, he moved out of construction and became supervisor of transportation for the Wichita Public School System. This gave him a chance to work personally with young black kids on his school buses who desperately needed male role models in their lives—a job Thurmon accepted enthusiastically. Even the children who had discipline problems on his buses would tell Emmitt later that their meetings with “Mr. Mitchell” had lasting impacts on them.

When he wasn’t at work, Thurmon was a Boy Scout troop leader, where he produced the first ever black Eagle Scout in the entire state of Kansas. Before long, he was producing a steady stream of black Eagle Scouts who later became lawyers, doctors, engineers, and pastors.

And in 1994, almost fifty years after watching the German soldiers welcomed into a Kansas dining room that he was not allowed to enter himself, Thurmon Mitchell was recognized as “Wichita Citizen of the Year.” Though the award was normally given to a leader of industry, politics, or philanthropy, Thurmon’s sphere of influence over the years had grown so much that multiple leaders who would normally have been leading considerations to receive the prestigious award were crediting Thurmon as one of the main reasons behind their success. So much so, that the community felt it was high time for Thurmon to be recognized for all he had done.

Though awards are nice, and Thurmon and his family certainly appreciated the recognition, there is nothing more rewarding about living a life for the Lord and for the community than hearing personal stories. During the last week of Thurmon’s life, the elderly community leader was being attended to by his doctor and his pastor—both of whom had been former Eagle Scouts of Thurmon’s. As the two were walking with Thurmon while he was being rolled into a surgical procedure room, a young Hispanic orderly saw the patient and recognized him from the orderly’s nighttime job. “That’s Mr. Mitchell, isn’t it? He’s a good dude. I worked with him at the Holiday Inn. He would make work fun.”

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The matriarchs of Emmitt’s family didn’t usually have the corresponding patriarch to live their life and raise their family with, at least not for long. As Emmitt describes it, “There were men who came along, obviously, but they didn’t live long. Partly because of war, partly just because they were plain old tough and got killed along the way.” 

Hazel McMillian Mitchell found her man when she was just a teenager. Together they experienced war, racism, alcoholism, anger, and divorce, which for most couples would be more than enough to end the relationship forever. But the Good News Bible teacher knew the “good news”—that Jesus Christ had come to earth to die on a cross and be crucified as punishment for all of humanity’s sins. Whether she ever taught the children in her home Romans 6:4 is unknown, but there is no doubt Hazel would’ve earned her own cookies and Kool-Aid, and known this scripture well: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Hazel chose to live in the light knowing that one day Thurman, too, “might walk in newness of life.” To God’s glory, she was right. The future Citizen of the Year loved Jesus with all his life, and literally died surrounded by other men he helped to also walk in that same newness of life.

Read part 4 of this 4-part series on the family journey of D. L. Moody Center CEO Emmitt Mitchell.