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Sean Kirst: Watching Charlottesville, a family reflects on one long path

A serviceman born in Buffalo left more than 65 years ago to fight in the Korean War. He was an African-American corporal, sent to the front lines in an all-black Army unit. He was caught in an explosion, wounded by shrapnel. He came home to raise a son who was the center of his life, a son whose  passion in life remains education.

The father died too young, in circumstances that haunt his only child.

It's just one quiet story, yet Corey Mitchell Sr. has relived it for the last few days. He and his wife, Carole, and their children, with a sadness that Corey says leaves them weary, have watched the around-the-clock news coverage of last weekend's torch-bearing white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Virginia, of a car that plowed into the crowd and killed a protester, of the fierce national debate after President Trump initially called for a halt to an "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides."

Corey's life is built around one story, and that story is his quest. He is a middle school social studies teacher in Mattydale, near Syracuse. He is spending the summer as an administrative intern at a BOCES regional summer school.

His goal, his next step, is becoming either a school administrator or a college professor.

As part of the journey, he wants to fully understand his dad and the nature of his sacrifice.

"It's like a part of me is still missing," Corey said. "When I was little, we were very close. I'd go to see him, and I'd watch while he put on shaving cream, his after-shave lotion. He'd read to me, and I'd play with those little plastic soldiers because I knew he'd been in the war. And I'd say to him: Tell me a war story."

Corey Mitchell Sr. with his father. (Family photo)

Looking back on it, his father could not bring himself to offer the tale that mattered most. As the years went by, Corey said, John Mitchell quietly changed. He had been a jazz singer, a guy nicknamed "Wiggie." His brother, Leon Mitchell of Buffalo, said their own father worked for years for the city, from a garage on Broadway.

"Wiggie" was a regular presence at many jazz clubs and festivals around Buffalo, Leon said. He had a graceful manner. He loved to wear sharp shoes and a nice suit. Many years after the war, in Syracuse, he would often bring Corey to the Dunbar American Legion Post, where the child would sip ginger ale and proudly watch his dad talk with other veterans.

"My father," Corey said, "just seemed so well put-together."

Gradually, as John Mitchell suffered, that veneer dissolved. Corey remembers a day when his father suddenly fell into an unexpected rage, when he began screaming and using the word "soldier," when he clearly descended into some kind of traumatic flashback.

Corey was frightened. Those episodes started to occur with growing frequency. Corey became alarmed enough to ask his mother, Dorothy Mae Owens, what was happening. She and his father remained close, although they were not married.

Owens explained how John Mitchell had been sent to the front lines in the Korean War, how he saw things almost unbearable to recount, how he earned the Purple Heart when he was caught in an explosion and sprayed with shrapnel ….

And how he spent his life, once he returned, trying to suppress those horrors in a time before post-traumatic stress became a military priority.

"Once you go to war and see it," said Mitchell's brother Leon, "it becomes permanent. It's hard to shake."

The family already had lived out a story of extraordinary achievement. In 1903, one of Mitchell's great-grandfathers, William Johnson, became the first African-American to earn a law degree from Syracuse University. The school maintains an award in his honor.

Yet the university also acknowledges  a difficult truth: Johnson graduated into a community where a black man was not allowed to practice law. He spent his life restricted to serving as a clerk, quietly offering legal advice to others in the African-American community.

As for Corey's mother, she came from a family of sharecroppers in Louisiana, in the Jim Crow South. Her grandfather, Corey said, was a farmer who owned a small piece of land and turned it into a commercial success. Some white landowners who lived nearby demanded that he sell it.

He refused. One night, as an example, he was tortured and then murdered.

The story hung over the family like a shroud. Dorothy Mae Owens, as a young woman, headed North. She settled in Syracuse and took a job, cleaning hotels. She began dating this jazz singing veteran from Buffalo, and together they had a son. To pay the bills, she took a job working on a line in a small pharmaceutical plant.

At night, Mitchell recalls, he would hear her weeping softly, unable to sleep, because the rigors of the job caused such pain in her hands. Her emphasis, always, was on education – on the idea that a degree would open doors of opportunity, that it would save her child from the kind of work that made her cry.

A montage of family photos, images: Corey Mitchell Sr. (upper right) and his family, including his father in uniform (lower right). (Mitchell family images)

His mother, as she aged, struggled with her health. As for his dad, his behavior became more distressing, more irrational. A guy who'd once prided himself on how he dressed was often disheveled. His flashbacks to Korea increased in duration and intensity.

Once, when Corey was in high school, they became engaged in a furious argument whose cause Corey can't even remember.

"I was hard-headed," Corey said.

He shouted at his father, stormed out and went to class.

When he went home that day, his mother and grandmother were waiting for him.

His father, at 56, had died of a heart attack. Corey, recalling their dispute, was torn by grief.

Dorothy Mae Owens, in the 1990s, learned she had breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy, but the cancer eventually spread to her brain. She died about 17 years ago, which leaves Corey – the only child – as the one compelled to gather all these stories for his children.

In Virginia, white supremacists rallied for a return to an America Corey thought we'd left behind. He watches the news, and he remembers a tale his father told him about returning from Korea, how he walked into a train station restroom in full uniform. Another man called him a vicious name and said:

You can't be in this bathroom.

John Mitchell raised his fists. He had seen too much to turn around. He went home and taught his son to claim his place in the American experiment, lessons that continued even as Mitchell's wounds overwhelmed him.

"That fight we had," Corey said. "I never got to make it up."

Now, he visits Korean War websites and leaves notes seeking information on his father. His quest is finding someone who served in Korea with John Mitchell, someone who witnessed the events that had such lasting impact on their family.

Corey, 48, is thinking, more than ever, of his parents and those who came before him: Of his mother, crying in bed. Of his father, finding solace with fellow veterans at the legion post. Of the great-grandfather who was murdered because he dared to be successful. Of the great-grandfather whose law degree meant nothing in a Jim Crow America.

What is amazing to Corey is how they never lost their faith, the way they taught their children to believe in some pure, fierce vision of an America waiting down the road. He doesn't know what kind of shattered reasoning prevents a white supremacist from looking at Corey and simply seeing another human being, raised by parents who sacrificed so much on his behalf, lives built on ideals that he thought defined this nation.

In the end, as tired as all this is making him, Corey views it as a test. He knows what those who came before him would expect him to do, the debt he owes so many who had no chance at all.

"Someone," he said, "always needs to take that next step forward."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or leave a comment below.

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