Charles E. Mitchell
Charles E. Mitchell ()

Charles E. Mitchell saw an opportunity to make a difference for Pennsylvania attorneys, particularly minorities faced with unfair circumstances, and jumped at the chance. Through his work as a labor lawyer beginning in the 1970s and his involvement in the elimination of the discriminatory nature of the Pennsylvania bar exam, Mitchell managed to do just that despite a late start to his legal career.

Mitchell, who died June 5 at 88 years old, worked at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. for two decades and as a labor arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association.

“Charles saw himself as an ambassador to help along race relations through the way he conducted himself as a lawyer and as a person,” said James T. Giles, of counsel at Pepper Hamilton, who worked with Mitchell at the National Labor Relations Board office in Philadelphia.

Mitchell, a Philadelphia resident for most of his life, had a desire to practice law that “drove him to overcome a number of obstacles,” said his son, Charles L. Mitchell, an attorney in New York.

After struggling to pass the Pennsylvania bar exam on his first few attempts, despite having already passed the Washington, D.C., exam in 1969, Charles E. Mitchell became involved with the Liacouras Committee. Chaired by Peter J. Liacouras, the former dean of Temple University Law School, the committee was formed to study the Pennsylvania bar exam and determine whether the low passage rate among black applicants was due to a discriminatory nature.

Mitchell received his law degree from Temple in 1954 and began his career as a legal assistant in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in 1956 before working for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He began working at the NLRB as an examiner in 1964, and was one of many applicants who found the Pennsylvania exam problematic as he attempted to become an attorney. At the time, the test was given in essay form, applicants were asked to submit photographs and the passage rate for black applicants was so low that the dean of Howard University School of Law encouraged students to avoid the Pennsylvania exam.

“Charles had mysteriously been unsuccessful in passing the Pennsylvania bar exam,” Giles said. “It was mysterious because he certainly had the intelligence, the acuity, in my opinion, to pass any examination.”

Mitchell was prepared to serve as a plaintiff in a lawsuit if one were to be filed in an attempt to force change, but upon the release of the Liacouras Committee’s findings—that the nature of the exam was indeed discriminatory—the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners quickly acted to update the exam process.

Among the changes made to the exam, beginning in 1972, were introduction of a multiple choice portion, applicants could sit wherever they chose and the photograph requirement was eliminated. Passage rates soared, especially for minority applicants, including Mitchell. After failing five times under the old methods, according to his son, Mitchell could finally practice law in Pennsylvania.

The integration of the Pennsylvania bar was a turning point for the state and its legal community.

“It not only led to there being more African-American practicing attorneys, it gave the community an opportunity to have their services,” Charles L. Mitchell said. “It was providing representation to parts of the community that hadn’t had it before.”

Giles said the changes “had the effect of removing Pennsylvania as having a bad reputation among minority persons across the country.”

Through his work at DuPont, the NLRB and the AAA, Charles E. Mitchell kept a focus on representing the black community well. He traveled the country for DuPont, representing the company and its management, a position his son said was uncommon at the time for an African-American attorney.

“He surely came into contact with persons who had never had at that time a business or a working relationship with a black person, certainly a professional,” Giles said. “Charles felt that as an opportunity to represent the quality of minority persons who are out there.”

After working at DuPont, Mitchell, who was an active member of the American Bar Association’s labor and employment section, worked at the AAA from 1993 to 2003.

“Charles Mitchell was a trailblazer in his own right who embodied the essence of the Barristers’ Association,” said Amber Racine, president of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia. “Charles was one of many courageous Barristers’ members who challenged a discriminatory system in order to pave the way for others.”

Mitchell is survived by his wife, Lloyd, of Philadelphia; his son, Charles L. Mitchell; his daughter-in-law, Yvonne; his granddaughter, Julia, of New York; his son, Albert B. Mitchell; and his stepdaughter, Alexis Martin, of Philadelphia.

A memorial service for Mitchell is set for 10 a.m. July 26 at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, 6361 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia. Donations can be made to Absalom Jones House at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

Ben Seal can be contacted at 215-557-2368 or at bseal@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BSealTLI.