Celebrating Local Black Heroes: Jeanne Mitchell
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Jeanne Mitchell (1923-2013) was a secondary English and French teacher at Bangor High School. Her presence, patience, and willingness to pour into everyone around her made her name one that is remembered fondly, even nearly a decade after her passing.
Jeanne was the oldest of 5 children and grew up in Chicago. She met her high school sweetheart, Philemon Mitchell, and they married in 1943 and were together until Philemon’s passing in 2004.
After two years, their first daughter, Jeanne (named after her mother) was born. Jeanne and Philemon had 9 more children over the years! Beyond the couple’s biological children, many children also considered them to be second parents. MLive even quoted Jeanne’s son Phil saying that extra children would end up in their family Christmas photos!
At the time, Chicagoland was rife with racism, so the family moved to Covert, Michigan, where schools were integrated. Finally, on Jeanne’s 30th birthday, the family moved to Grand Junction, Michigan, where they planted their roots, figuratively and literally.
The Mitchell family started Mitchell Blueberry Farm (now Mitchell’s Organics) in 1968. Jeanne worked on the farm with Philemon during the summers when she wasn’t teaching. Over the years, while at the farm Jeanne mentored several of her children, grandchildren, and even neighborhood kids. These days, Mitchell’s Organics is operated by some of the Mitchell children.
Inspired by both of her parents, Jeanne grew up learning to serve others in the community selflessly. Her mother, a homemaker, baked and canned food regularly. Her father was a postal worker and handyman. On his routes, he would often find discarded furniture, which he would refurbish and give away to people in need.
Jeanne brought these skills to her own family of 10, baking and canning just like her mother did, and fixing things around their home, like her father. And, just like her parents, Jeanne demonstrated the same selfless service that her parents did, and was always willing to help others in the community.
Jeanne felt strongly that everyone has a responsibility to care for one another. She saw great importance in easing suffering where she could, encouraging others to do the same.
Jeanne served as a Brownie Scout leader in Grand Junction for many years. When she started, there were no Girl Scout programs for the children of color who lived nearby. Seeing an opportunity to meet a need, Jeanne became a scout leader.
Her home was a gathering place for neighborhood kids, even with a family as large as hers. She would often say, “What’s one more kid?”
Her own children share that because of their mother, caring for others is in their DNA. Her daughter Josephine (featured in last year’s Local Black Heroes series) shares, “Community service and volunteering ever since moving to Kalamazoo in 1975 has been a way of life for me. I find it rewarding and important work just as I know she did.”
Jeanne attended WMU, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She was also a member of the National Education Association, and the Retired Teachers Association.
When her own children grew up and left home, Jeanne became an even bigger part of the lives of her students at Bangor High, teaching there for 23 years. She invested in her students by educating them well, but also by showing them the world outside of Van Buren County. Jeanne took it upon herself to take students to Kalamazoo for dinner, concerts, and other events. She would also take carloads to South Haven to offer them a different experience than their small town of Bangor.
Above all, Jeanne would always encourage students to read. She loved reading and inspired many to love it, as well.
When asked what legacy Jeanne left in Van Buren county, Josephine answered powerfully, “Mom’s life was rich with providing loving care to others, particularly marginalized and poor children. She provided hope to many and was a resource to others, whether students or fellow teachers and the principal. When she passed away, her memorial was held at the former high school gymnasium because of the number of former students, teachers, etc. who planned to attend.”