Notes of a postal worker’s daughter

Notes of a postal worker’s daughter

“There is scarcely a post office of a city in the south that is not overrun by [N]egroes – just as is with the railway mail service,” — Atlanta Constitution, April 29, 1907. Save the USPS

The United States Post Office Department was created in 1792, while Black people’s paid employment during the late 1700s through the early and mid-1800s was extremely limited (owing to chattel enslavement of Black people), that changed after the Civil War. During Reconstruction, African Americans began receiving appointments as postmasters, clerks, and city letter carriers. While post-reconstruction, the chance for mobility for Black people lessened. It was still a place where Black people could not only work, but also receive a just wage.

The US Post Office was a place where college-educated African Americans could gain dignified employment.

Post-Reconstruction

In the early 20th Century, there were colleges Black people could attend. Black people could attend historically black institutions like Howard, public colleges above the Mason Dixon, like UCLA and even liberal (using the term liberal to imply not actively racist not radical) private schools like Harvard, but after graduation, there were limited job prospects for Black graduates to use their intellect.

“Bryn Mawr had done what a four-year dose of liberal education was designed to do: unfit her for eighty percent of useful work of the world.”

Toni Morrison describing Cori (First Corinthians) in her novel “Song of Solomon.” To read that line, you have to understand what was not stated. Eighty percent of useful work FOR BLACK people. This was the case then as it is in large part now. 

An education makes you too big, and the United States has forever tried to make Black people small.

Black people will never be middle class, a class reserved for the mediocre average gatekeepers of white supremacy, because even a Black gatekeeper must be excellent, but the post office allowed middle income.

In Song of Solomon, Cori, a Black woman with a “fancy” degree who had gone to France, ended up being a maid for a white woman. While this is a fictional tale, it is a tale that historically many Black people who went from house slave to Reconstruction Colored to segregated Negro can relate.

(Yes, that sentence is intended to be loaded.)

The Post Office from the beginning was a place where an educated Black person could get dignified work, and the Post Office along with the Pullman Porters, are the birthplaces of modern day labor organizing for Black people.

“Comparatively well educated [N]egroes are willing, indeed, glad, to take minor clerkships under the government, places which do not appeal to white men of ability for the simple reason that the white man can do better. The consequence is that the most capable of the [N]egroes compete with whites of at best only mediocre ability,” —The Washington Post, June 7, 1908.

Like Compton, Communism, and other radical Black organizing spots, the Post Office has been vilified and dog whistled in the mainstream press. The maligning of the Post Office is owing to two reasons. 

  1. It being among the preferred employment among the Black thinkers (Harry Haywood), artists (Brittany Howard), writers (Richard Wright), abolitionists (John Brown, yes that John Brown) and others that white supremacy views as uppity (or race traitors).
  2. Its effective BLACK organizing prowess that even extends below the Mason Dixon line. 

The impression that the Post Office is a place that gives Black people an opportunity is a deficit perspective. The Post Office has been a place where, through the skills of Black labor organizers have created opportunities for other Black people. The Post Office didn’t give Black people anything. It simply let Black people be, which is a rare verb for Black people to experience in the United States. 

The Post Office is what it is, partly because of the Black people who fought through white lynch mobs to make it that way. People like Fisk graduate Minnie Cox. In 1891 Cox was appointed Postmaster General in Indianola, Mississippi. She kept that appointment through 1903, leaving because growing white resentment put her life in physical danger. She later went on to found the Delta Penny Savings Bank.

And James B. Cobb. Cobbs worked as a career postal employee for 31 years. Cobbs, a Howard graduate with a JD, instituted a program in the 1940s that established an education program for the express purpose of training stewards to process cases from the initial level to the Board of Appeals and Review. This program is still in effect today. He went on to become President of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees.

After WW2, a changing world made the Post Office more challenging. A bigger world meant more mail. By the 1960s owing to the Post Office having a reputation of being a place of Black empowerment, there was an attempt to deprofessionalize and to defund it, like what was done to everything else that was tainted in Blackness, a sort of white elephant a gift to Black people for the Civil Rights Movement. 

The Wildcat Strike

The most massive Wildcat Strike in United States history that resulted in the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 took place at the USPS. The Postal Reorganization Act gave postal unions the right to collective bargaining, meaning the power to bargain for wages and benefits and arbitrate contract disputes and enforce members’ rights. This act was owed in part to the Black workers of the post office who were inspired by the era’s Black Liberation Movements, such as the Black Panthers and US.

From the IS Review:

Black workers, concentrated in strike centers such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, were pivotal to the illegal, weeklong walkout of 200,000 postal workers. Nearly 19 percent of the total 700,00 postal employees in 1968 were Black. In New York, there were 20,796 Black postal workers, most of whom were among the 50,044 who worked in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Chicago, 17,688 out of 28,229 postal workers were Black; Washington, 10,170 out of 11,349; Los Angeles, 8,579 of 13,588; San Francisco, 6,821 of 10,228; Philadelphia, 6,267 of 12,014; and Detroit, 5,394 of 9,865. The strike quite likely involved the largest number of African Americans workers ever to take part in an organized labor dispute in the United States.

The strike pivoted on the leadership of Black workers. In Chicago, the mostly Black local of the Letter Carriers’ union voted to join the strike with the chant, “Post Power,” an apparent reference to the Black Power slogan.”

While NALC president James Radamacher made a deal with President Nixon for the pathetic concession of a 5.4% raise, Black workers disregarded his foolishness and the law (and many of the old Black guard of the NAPFE-though I respect the work they did in the early 20th Century) and walked out. 

The Post Office has a proud Black and radical history that is over 150 years old, and that should never be minimized in the telling of the Black Postal Worker History.

Black people, in large part, made the Post Office a good accessible job for working-class white people, immigrants, and everyone else, who just wanted a good job.

Never forget that the continuous desire to destroy the post office is always rooted in antiblackness and antiworker’s rights sentiments

by Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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