STILLWATER, Okla. – Earl Mitchell walked through the door and into his office at Oklahoma State University for the first time in 1967. Just another day for most on the Stillwater campus, but Mitchell was making history.
Starting as a research associate in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, Mitchell quickly moved into a professor position in 1969, making him the first black professor at OSU. While he was professionally building a culture of acceptance and diversity, he also was preparing his three children to face the world with clear expectations and putting things in motion to have generations of Mitchells be part of the OSU family.
“Our life style was one of diversity,” Mitchell said. “My wife and I were involved with civil rights and our children were aware of the difficulties of discrimination, even though they were children of an upper middle class black family that lived in a white environment.”
Mitchell encouraged his children to be confident in their abilities and drilled them on academics and professionalism.
“They witnessed the associations we had with the local black community and other people of color. They had diverse friends,” he said. “We took the time to explain to them the advantages they had as the children of a faculty member, but also reminded them that meant nothing to people who did not respect their race. In other words, we made a concerted effort to encourage our children to be prepared when racism hit them in the face and not be destroyed by it.”
That message of strength was well received by the baby of the family, Mike “Mitch” Mitchell.
“Growing up, dad kind of just turned a deaf ear to a lot of that stuff. He dealt with all that stuff, but it really didn’t affect me any,” Mitch said. “I was a bouncer at (Eskimo) Joe’s, too, so it didn’t matter too much to me.”
Even though he was born in Michigan while his dad was earning his Ph.D., Mitch considers himself a Cowboy lifer. After eight years of full-time work in Stillwater, Mitch followed in his siblings’ footsteps and began taking classes at OSU for turf management.
“I was a faculty member on a tenure track and he was a student. I suspect Mike had the same experiences as other students,” Mitchell said. “I had a very different experience from many other African Americans because of my discipline and the colleagues I had in the Department of Biochemistry. Fortunately, I had colleagues that were very helpful, as we helped each other.”
The fact that his father was a prominent, well-known and respected professor housed literally across the street from where he was taking classes had some unintended consequences.
“Every class I went into, they would see my name and ask if I was related to Dr. Mitchell,” Mitch said. “Then they would call on me. Every time.”
The name recognition hasn’t slowed down much for the Mitchell family around Stillwater over the years.
“It still happens to this day. That’s been going on now for 30 years,” Mitch said. “Now my kids are going through what I went through.”
During his son’s baseball tournament in Cushing last year, the public address announcer recognized name Mitchell and flagged Mitch down to ask the all-too-familiar question; Are you related to Dr. Earl Mitchell?
The entire family can proudly say yes, and not just because of his extensive work for diversity at OSU.
Earl Mitchell helped create a culture of diversity and acceptance when he became the first black professor at
Oklahoma State University in the late 1960s. He shows his OSU spirit with grandsons, Bryson (10) and Reece (5).
Mitch recalls having some racial discussions with his dad and overhearing other conversations maybe he should not have, but it is the academic and grammatical assistance from his professor father that have closely stuck with him.
“In high school, I’d go home with homework and I’d ask dad a biology question on dominant or recessive genes, or something, and he’d pull out his board and take an hour and a half to explain it,” Mitch said. “Now, I’m thankful, because it paid off. Back then, I didn’t appreciate it, but now I’m doing the same things to my kids to that my dad did to me.”
Mitch, and his wife, Tera, have a daughter and two sons; Reagan, 17; Bryson, 10; and Reece, 5. On occasion, like most children do, the Mitchell kids will make a grammatical mistake.
“Where are you at,” they may ask Mitch, he said. “Right behind that preposition. Dad was big on grammar and pronunciation. ”
Whether his children currently appreciate the guidance he is providing is yet to be determined. But, many of the life lessons are beginning to show up.
Reagan is a senior at Stillwater High School and is taking concurrent classes through OSU. His boys are often found sporting orange and black athletic gear and have aspirations of becoming Cowboys in the future.
The third generation OSU family may be answering similar questions about their grandfather in the coming years. “Are you related to Dr. Mitchell?”
Undoubtedly, they will answer in the most confident, proud and grammatically correct way possible.