On Wednesday, June 5, 2013, buttercup rays of sunshine peeked through the partly cloudy skies to glimpse the Who’s Who of Austin as they gathered to pay their last respects to Joyce Elizabeth Adejumo (Hunt).
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Well known as the founder of Mitchie’s Gallery (which she opened in 1989) and a passionate spokesperson against drunk driving, Adejumo was a small business legend with a national reputation.
Her family received messages of condolences and proclamations from Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Governor Rick Perry, State Representative Dawnna Dukes and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole. The number of lives she touched is too numerous to count and the loss of her selfless activism is too great to measure. Before moving to Austin in 1985, Adejumo honed the disciplined work ethic she learned as a child at the North Carolina Military Academy. She was the first African-American female to graduate from the prestigious institution.
She went on to serve in the U.S. Army and U.S. National Guard where she quickly rose to the rank of Captain. With a seemingly bright future ahead, Adejumo began a family, giving birth to her only son, Fred Leon “Mitchie” Mitchell III the same year she moved to Austin.
Three years later, Mitchie was injured in a drunken driving accident which left him a paraplegic: paralyzed below the waist. In the first of many ironies that would darken Adejumo’s bright horizon, the intoxicated driver was Mitchie’s biological father. The toddler survived the crash and the 100 operations that followed but neither he nor his mother would ever be the same. In the face of such tragedy, Adejumo would have been within her rights to close her heart and mind to everyone but her son.
Instead, she opened Mitchie’s Gallery to help pay her son’s medical expenses and joined forces with the Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to lobby for tougher laws against driving while intoxicated. Mitchie’s, as it is known by the locals, was never just a bookstore or just an art gallery. They hosted a weekly Saturday story time for kids, served as a meeting place for nonprofit organizations, a workshop for artists, a classroom for sign language instructors, and an early mobile voting center.
Mitchie’s was also “the largest and oldest African American retail gallery in Austin, Texas” according to their website. Signed, original paintings by artists such as Larry Poncho Brown, along with special edition collectibles crafted by sculptors like Thomas Blackshear, adorned the walls and shelves as abundantly as frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Mitchie’s was the only retail outlet in Central Texas for many African-American artists. Adejumo’s commitment to encouraging cultural awareness knew no limits.
When approached for a comment about her impact on the art industry, renowned visual artist Charles Bibbs responded, “She was a pioneer in our business. I need some time to think about this because this is a shock. Please forgive me…”
His dismay was shared by the numerous authors who considered Mitchie’s a must-do stop during any national book tour. New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author, Kimberla Lawson Roby, commented, “When I self-published my first novel, Joyce was one of the very first bookstore owners in the country to offer to have me at her store for a book signing event. Mitchie’s was always such a wonderful place for authors to go…I signed there many times and Joyce was one of the most supportive people I knew. I will forever be grateful to her.”
The news about Adejumo reverberated like a tidal wave through the literary community. Houston author, Anita Richmond Bunkley was also a recipient of Adejumo’s patronage. “Joyce…continued to support my career and my books…providing a much-needed environment for African American authors to meet readers.”
Mitchie’s was open seven days a week and Adejumo rarely missed a day of work. When she wasn’t at Mitchie’s, she was often at the State Capitol with her son educating governors and members of the Texas Legislature about the tragic consequences of drunk driving. When her beloved son died at the age of twenty-one, in 2007, she formed the Mitchie Mitchell Foundation to provide academic scholarships to those injured by drunk drivers.
Inspired by the many authors she hosted, she wrote an inspirational book, “My Daily Prayers: Spiritual Words of Wisdom” in 2010. Her philanthropy and drive were heralded by enough awards to fill another gallery, including “Best Legacy of Triumph Out of Tragedy” recognition from the Austin Chronicle. As if to prove a senseless point, tragedy struck again when Adejumo was diagnosed with pulmonary emphysema.
She closed the gallery in August 2012 in the hopes of receiving the only known cure for the degenerative pulmonary disease, a lung transplant. While fighting for her life, she took up the cause of organ donation and that would be her last crusade. In the ultimate irony, this dynamic and outspoken community leader lost the ability to move air across her powerful vocal chords.
And that sad, sad, conclusion has left everyone who knew and loved her virtually speechless.