Reverend William M. Mitchell was born free in Guildford County, North Carolina to a Native American mother and an African American father. Because his mother was not a slave, little William was born free. At a young age, he was orphaned. He was apprenticed to a planter and slaveowner for twelve years. This meant he had to work for the planter and learn how to run the plantation, after which he would be free to leave. The last five of those years he spent as plantation manager, where he witnessed all the cruelties of the slave system. He was forced to order the punishment and whippings of enslaved men, women and children, for example, and to oversee the sale and separation of families, both common occurrences in slavery. After his indenture was completed, Mitchell converted to and became a Baptist minister and dedicated his life to the cause of the enslaved.
Reverend Mitchell moved to Ross County, Ohio, married his wife Elizabeth, and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He claimed to have conducted the real-life slave mother immortalized as “Eliza” in the classic work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Eliza” is the woman who jumped from ice flow to ice flow across the Ohio River, her child in her arms, so that her infant son who had already been sold could not be delivered to his new owner.
In 1855, Mitchell moved to Toronto as a missionary of the American Baptist Free Mission Society. He lived on the outskirts of the city proper in the suburban area known as York Township West, just north of Bloor and west of Yonge Street. A number of other people of African descent lived in the area, including successful ice merchant Richard B. Richards, who lived on Davenport Road, as well as carpenter and community leader Adolphus Judah, both prominent figures in Mitchell’s church. Several Underground Railroad travelers lived in the area as well, including two couples named Frank and Emily Wanzer and Barnaby and Mary Grigsby. Their 1855 flight to freedom, in which both the men and the women drew guns and bowie knives rather than be taken into custody, was immortalized in William Still’s Underground Rail Road Records. Frank Wanzer later returned to Virginia and led his sister, her husband and another man out of bondage and straight to York Township West where they too settled.
Reverend Mitchell ministered to the congregation of the Coloured Regular Baptist Church on Terauley and Edward Streets and became involved in the social and religious life of the Black community. He left on a fundraising tour of Great Britain in 1859-61 for the purposes of collecting money to build a chapel and school in Toronto. It was there that he published his book, The Under-Ground Railroad in 1860. This book is an enduring testament to the tireless Underground Railroad agents and their courageous passengers, as well as an important statement about the condition and status of the Black communities of Canada West (Ontario) at the time. Mitchell and his family had left the area by the end of the Civil War, and he was listed as a deceased member of the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention in the minutes of the annual meeting for 1879.