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Dr. Keiffer Mitchell Sr. dies at 73

Dr. Keiffer Mitchell Sr., 73, a barrier-breaking gastroenterologist, died Tuesday.

Dr. Keiffer Mitchell Sr., a prominent Baltimore physician and a member of a nationally recognized family of civil rights activists, died Tuesday after a brief illness, his family said. He was 73.

Dr. Mitchell, the son of pioneering NAACP leader Clarence Mitchell Jr. and activist Juanita Jackson Mitchell, was the first black student to enroll at Gwynns Falls Junior High School after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended segregation.

He went to Lincoln University and Nashville's Meharry Medical College, and later opened a gastroenterology office near his childhood home on Druid Hill Avenue in Upton. There, he treated a wide array of patients, regardless of age or financial status. The waiting room, the Rev. Al Hathaway of Union Baptist Church recalled Tuesday, was like "a snapshot of Baltimore City."

Lawyer William H. "Billy" Murphy said Dr. Mitchell could have relocated and made more money, but kept his practice in West Baltimore serving poor patients. "He stayed so he could be a role model for kids who had none," Mr. Murphy said.

At the time, Dr. Mitchell was one of the few black doctors in the Baltimore area and the first to serve on the Johns Hopkins University medical school admissions committee, according to his son, Keiffer Mitchell Jr., a former city councilman and state delegate.

In a 1984 Baltimore Sun profile, Dr. Mitchell retold the story of breaking the racial barrier at his junior high school 30 years earlier. A gang of older neighborhood youths — who were "caught up in the antagonism of integration," he said — beat him up on the playground during recess one day.

"It was a very trying time," he said. "There was hostility on the part of the students and the surrounding neighborhoods. My father had to take me to school for at least six weeks until things settled down."

Art provided a haven from the harsh reality of the early days of desegregation, he said. His artistic pursuits evolved as he grew older, included painting, photography, sculpture and jewelry making, and he kept a gallery of his work above his office.

"He was a one-of-a-kind individual," his son said. "I considered him a renaissance man."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city would miss Dr. Mitchell, calling him a "kind man and loving father."

"All of Baltimore mourns the loss of a member of our legendary civil rights family, the Mitchells," she said in a statement. "My prayers are with the entire Mitchell family."

City Councilman Carl Stokes called Dr. Mitchell a "Baltimore pillar of African-American strength."

Mr. Hathaway, 64, said he grew up a block from the Mitchells on Druid Hill Avenue. He said he was both a family friend and a patient of Dr. Mitchell's.

"The beauty about Keiffer, Dr. Mitchell, was that he understood relationships and the power of community, and he understood we should always bring our best to our endeavors," he said.

Dr. Mitchell served as treasurer for his son's unsuccessful 2007 mayoral bid but stepped down during a controversy over campaign spending. Mr. Murphy, who represented the elder Mr. Mitchell during the ordeal, called him a "decent man and a good doctor."

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, said Dr. Mitchell's death represented a real loss to the city.

"We talk about the work of community officers and community legislators," she said. "He was the prime example of the old-fashioned, community doctor."

Dr. Mitchell took pride in his patients' longevity, and threw an annual Christmas party for those over 85.

One of them, Ms. Hill-Aston's stepfather, 98-year-old Harold Green, said Dr. Mitchell had been his physician for two decades. "I'd swear by him," he said.

Dr. Mitchell is survived by his wife of 48 years, Nannette; his three children, Keiffer Jr., Kelly Newhouse, and Kathleen Mitchell; and four grandchildren. He also is survived by two brothers, Michael D. Mitchell Sr. and George Mitchell Sr. His brother Clarence Mitchell III preceded him in death.

A funeral service is planned for 3 p.m. Sunday at Sharp Street United Methodist Church.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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