By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
When Travis Mitchell attended Morgan State University in 1988, his initial intention was to earn a political science degree. He also wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps of playing college basketball. He thought he’d either graduate and continue playing basketball or take up coaching. Then came his sophomore year.
Mitchell enrolled in a news writing class and found that he was in love with journalism. There was just one problem—the class interfered with basketball practice, forcing Mitchell to choose between a childhood dream or new-found passion. More than 30 years later, many are glad he chose the latter.
“I knew down in my soul that if I were to drop out of that class it would have a long-term negative impact on me,” Mitchell told the AFRO. “I knew I was going to go further in life based on what I was getting out of that class rather than what I would get on the court.”
And go further he did. Today, Mitchell serves as the senior vice president and chief content officer for Maryland Public Television, a member station of the Public Broadcasting Service. He has decades of media experience under his belt.
“I feel like I have the greatest job in America,” said Mitchell. “It’s more of a calling than it is a career.”
Born in Raleigh, N.C., Mitchell’s childhood was largely shaped by growing up on a historically, Black college and university campus. His father, Ira Mitchell was a star basketball player at Shaw University and took up coaching at the school. His mother, also an alumnae, worked in the student counseling center there.
“I’ve been on the campuses of HBCUs since the earliest stages of my life, which really had a profound impact on me,” said Mitchell, who also called the schools’ grounds his “Wakanda.”
When it came time for Mitchell to decide on higher education, his father took him on trips to several schools. After visiting Morgan State and meeting with the basketball coach, he knew he was destined to become a Morgan Bear. He attended the Northeast Baltimore HBCU on a double scholarship–one for athletics and another for academics.
Once Mitchell decided to end his basketball career, he joined the student newspaper, “The Spokesman.”
One day, MSU student government leaders informed the publication that they would be staging a sit-in in the president’s office to call for better dormitory conditions and safety on campus. But, after the demonstration, Mitchell said, it became clear that those issues were not the fault of President Earl S. Richardson or his administration.
“The condition of our dormitories and campus infrastructure was because of historic underfunding from the state of Maryland,” said Mitchell. “We uncovered that even with ‘separate but equal’ laws, the university system had drastically underfunded Morgan with the formula they had. Morgan was not given the infusion of dollars for deferred maintenance. Morgan had not had any new buildings on campus. Once we understood that, we decided we were going to expand our protest.”
Mitchell became the official student spokesperson for the campus protest, drawing the attention of Black press and other local media as well as Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He helped to lead sit-ins in MSU’s administration building, hunger strikes, rallies in Annapolis and negotiations with the governor. He also led an army of students on a 40-mile march from MSU’s campus to Annapolis after negotiations had reached a stalemate.
As the student face of the movement, Mitchel also began to draw more nefarious attention as death threats began rolling in.
“I got a letter from the Ku Klux Klan. It said they were tired of seeing my monkey face on TV, and the first chance they’d get, they would blow my head off,” said Mitchell. “I was thinking about that when we walked to Annapolis. The other students didn’t know it. I didn’t want to create any panic. This was the moment when I realized that faith in a cause bigger than you will always neutralize fear.”
Mitchell and his peers’ efforts engendered $1.5 billion in capital improvements for MSU over a 25-year period. He called it the “Morgan Renaissance.” Shortly after his graduation from the university, Mitchell also married his high school sweetheart, Angela.
During his leadership in the movement, Mitchell also jump-started his media career by working as an intern for Career Communications Group, a Baltimore-based media company. It was here that he began to evolve from print journalism to television production.
He worked under the tutelage of Toni Robinson, an independent producer for CCG, and assisted her on two of the company’s syndicated TV programs, “Success Through Education: A Salute to Black Achievement” and “Success Through Education: A Salute to Hispanic Achievement.”
The programs brought in celebrities and notable professionals to talk to students from the Baltimore area about confronting barriers to academic success and planning for careers.
“I was amazed that someone so young was very mature and was well-versed in caring about people and exhibiting a spirit of excellence,” said Robinson. “Whatever he’s involved in, he has extreme dedication.”
She attributed his talent for television production to his ability to understand audiences, affinity for visual storytelling and innate creativity.
“I taught him to major in his strengths and minor in his weaknesses, and that there was no shame in being weak in one area. That’s why you have a team around you,” said Robinson. “Travis believes in team spirit.”
Mitchell was able to spread that team spirit while serving as the vice president and chief operating officer for the Black Family Channel, an Atlanta-based television network started by famed attorney Willie E. Gary.
He was responsible for devising a programming strategy and building out the budding network’s departments.
“BET had gotten out of sports. We got the contracts with all the HBCU conferences,” said Mitchell. “We would air four quality games a weekend. I must have produced over 250 games over a four-year period.”
He also launched news programs at the network, which grew from being available in only two markets to serving 31 million homes, 3,600 markets and 48 states.
After leaving the Black Family Channel, Mitchell returned to his home state of North Carolina and took a break from media to transition to the nonprofit sector. He worked for Communities in Schools of Wake County, helping the organization develop math and reading enrichment programs and raise capital.
Mitchell’s first experience in public broadcasting came when he joined UNC-TV, known today as PBS North Carolina. He served as the chief content officer there for two years before moving back to Maryland to take up his current position at MPT.
“I was blessed to come back home to the Maryland area, almost four years ago, to become senior vice president at MPT, where I’ve been able to launch our HBCU Week initiative,” said Mitchell. “We’ve just finished our fourth year with over 27 hours of programming about the HBCU experience. Given my background, it was important for me to tell those stories.”
Mitchell hopes to expose more Black young people to the influence of HBCUs. His daughter, Trae Mitchell graduated from MSU last spring, following in her father’s footsteps by obtaining a journalism degree.
“I want young people to understand that HBCUs are the greatest human development organizations in the country for young African-American students,” said Mitchell.
Megan Sayles is a Report for America Corps member.
The post AFRO spotlight on Black excellence: Meet Travis Mitchell, the HBCU-made mogul making moves in media appeared first on AFRO American Newspapers .