The Crusader Newspaper Group

Please Mr./Ms. Postman Is There a Letter in Your Bag for Me?

The HistoryMakers e1589803022222

The HistoryMakers

While the future of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been called into question, its history within the African American community reaches back to its origins which are older than the country itself.

Postal route map 1729
Postal route map, 1729

The U.S. Postal Service was established in 1775 by the Continental Congress, but enslaved African Americans had been informally carrying mail since they were forcibly brought to the U.S. There were conflicting feelings on this by white people, and these concerns “were heightened due to a well-planned slave rebellion in 1791 in the French colony of St. Domingue, present day Haiti. Fearing a similar outcome in the United States South, postal officials outlawed the use of African Americans as mail carriers in 1802.”[1] This ban was extended in 1828 under Postmaster General John McLean, and was not lifted until 1862.

William Cooper Nell First African American to hold a federal agency position appointed a postal clerk in 1861
William Cooper Nell First African American to hold a federal agency position, appointed a postal clerk in 1861

Following the end of the Civil War, African Americans began winning political elections and with that power they “appointed more than 1,400 African Americans to political offices in the South,” and at USPS specifically, “close to 500 African Americans, including 116 postmasters, are known to have served during Reconstruction.”[2] The Reconstruction period concluded in 1877, and ushered in a new era of violent white supremacy which produced newspapers “with such headlines as those found in the Cleveland Gazette and the Union, ‘Another Postmaster’s Home Burned’, ‘Bulldozing a Postmaster’, and ‘Postal Clerk Lynched.’”[3] African Americans in the postal service decreased some during this time, but “by 1928, it was estimated that African Americans made up 15 to 30 percent of postal employees in major post offices.”[4]

Delivering an abundance of Christmas packages c.1910s
Delivering an abundance of Christmas packages, c.1910s

Former president of Kennedy-King College in Chicago, Harold Pates (1931 – ), spoke about his father who became a part of this work force when he moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1927: “He talked about the fact that he knew could get a job where he could support his family. Because at that time, that generation of men always talked about how a man is supposed to support his family… those jobs that were very, very popular, and those to which men who could read and write gravitated, were the Pullman porters, the post office, the stockyard, and the steel mill… But yeah he came for that opportunity to work at the post office… and then stayed there forty years.”[5]

Letter carriers 1926
Letter carriers, 1926

Management consultant James Lowry (1939 – ) further explained why these jobs were so attractive, including the generational wealth it helped build: “It was very secure… knowing you’re gonna get paid; secondly, that you would eventually have a pension. And now, my mother… is going on ninety-three, has a pension. She’s had a pension for thirty years because she was in the post office and putting, put in all those years… My father qualified [for a pension], and they both retired from the post office… if you look at a lot of people who have Ph.D’s or successful business people… their parents came out of the post office, and that was the springboard.”[6] His brother, foundation executive William E. Lowry, Jr. (1935 – ), added that “in one sense, they both have sort of beat the system.”[7] However, chemist Tyrone Mitchell’s (1939 – ) pointed out that many African Americans postal work the result of extreme racism that prevented many from a career in other fields. Mitchell’s father “worked side-by-side with African Americans who had PhD’s who couldn’t get any kind of work except for maybe teaching school or working in the Post Office or working independently for themselves.”[8]

Government issued poster 1942
Government issued poster, 1942

By the 1940s, there was “a new era of opportunity for African-American workers… when U.S. Presidents – spurred on both by civil rights organizations and war-time necessity – began using their powers of office to encourage equal opportunity in the workplace.”[9] Actor Danny Glover’s (1946 – ) parents were a part of this wave: “The demographics of the United Parcel Service [sic.] began to change with the influx of African Americans starting about 1948, when my parents came to the post office… diversity within the post office was pretty strong, you know.”[10]

Danny Glover’s parents James Carrie Glover 1944
Danny Glover’s parents, James & Carrie Glover, 1944
Danny Glover
Danny Glover










Racism and prejudice, though, still came with the job as Norma Adams-Wade (1944 – ), the first African American full-time general reporter for The Dallas Morning News, pointed out: “My dad and my sister’s father in law were in–both of them were in that early crop [of Black mail carriers]… they would tell stories about they had routes in the white area of town and they would tell stories about a couple of people coming out and saying look, here’s come one. Meaning a black postal carrier and they would tell those stories about how there would sometimes be negative reaction to this mail carrier coming up on your porch and then there were the other stories of them being welcomed.”[11]

Evelyn Brown Washington D.C. 1967 In 1963 she was the first woman to deliver mail in the city since the end of World War II12
Evelyn Brown, Washington, D.C., 1967 In 1963 she was the first woman to deliver mail in the city since the end of World War II[12]

Civic activist Lillian Dickerson (1902 – 2010) explained how women were discriminated against in a Philadelphia post office during World War II: “Our postmaster didn’t want women… there were thirty women, twenty-eight colored, two white women. He wouldn’t give us–he wouldn’t even put us on the list with the substitutes… So I said to the girls, this is not right. This is the government. You don’t take this without making a protest or they’re afraid they’d lose their jobs. So we finally did–they said who will we talk to? Go to Eleanor Roosevelt. So we wrote a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt… she wrote and told us that she would–was distressed when she heard the conditions and that she would have somebody look into it for us. And I’ll never forget the name of the woman, it was Esther Peterson in Washington [D.C.]. And she said, asked us to come down and have a meeting with her… She said ‘Now that will be done away with immediately’… and she had that done away.”[13]

Mail room Washington D.C. 1958
Mail room, Washington D.C., 1958

Equitable Life Insurance’s first African American regional president, Darwin N. Davis, Sr. (1932 – 2006), told the story of his father: “My father worked as a janitor in the post office in Flint, Michigan… and he picked up a scheme, you know the clerk that sort the mail, it’s called a scheme. And he took some soda pop cases and put up, labeled them… and he learned to throw the scheme and one day he said to the supervisor at the post office, ‘You know one day I would like to try to be a clerk.’ And they laughed like it was a big joke… They thought he didn’t understand. And he threw this thing and he made, I think three mistakes, and you can make twenty mistakes. You are allowed twenty mistakes, and so they were stunned… And so they said ‘Well you know this doesn’t count, you know we were just having fun. You have not passed the test because you have to apply and do all of this.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ Well the postmaster’s name was Oz Kelly [William Osmund Kelly] and I remember this so well… he called my father and he said, ‘Ab, I heard that you threw the scheme.’ So my father told him said, ‘Well you know I got a hold to a book and I studied it and I practiced. I set up a case of some of pop, soda-pop cases, and I learned to do it.’ He said, ‘Ab, you take it, make the application and pass this test and you’re gonna be the first black postal clerk in Flint, Michigan.’ And my father did that and in fact he made one mistake when he did this the next time. And [he] became the first black postal clerk in Flint, Michigan.”[14]

Sorting packages early 1960s
Sorting packages, early 1960s

While some made careers at the post office, others utilized temporary positions as a way to get through the holidays, such as James O. Webb (1931 – ), former mayor of Glencoe, Illinois: “In those days you didn’t go home that often. There just wasn’t that kind of money to be running back and forth to, from [Morehouse College in] Atlanta to Cleveland. So I went home usually on Christmas, but that’s because I worked in the post office… twenty hours a day for a week. And I would have enough money to, to buy presents and get a ticket home, a train ticket home.”[15]

The legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock (1940 – ) worked at the post office while establishing his music career in Chicago in 1960: “The drummer who had been hired to play with Coleman Hawkins, his name was Louis Taylor, he decided to give me a chance… I was thrilled… but I had to work at the post office in the morning. We performed fourteen days, at two weeks straight. From nine o’clock in the evening to four o’clock in the morning… I didn’t have that much time to sleep and then I have to deliver mail. And, but, the drummer started complaining, he said, ‘You better quit that post office ’cause it’s interfering with the music’… And, the other musicians who were working in the post office… said, ‘You better think about this because this is a good job, you get all the health benefits, and all these things, the government job and if you quit you’re not gonna be able to come back,’ and I knew about that. But, I quit. And, then I continued to gig with Coleman Hawkins.”[16] During that time “between 1961 and 1966, the Post Office Department became the single largest employer of African Americans in the United States. Almost one out of every ten employees was African American.”[17] In 1964, civic leader Alvin Little (1926 – 2017) reported that “they were paying $2.48 an hour which was big money. That was the best paying job in the whole county.”[18] By the end of the 20th century, African Americans comprised 21% of all postal employees, serving at all levels of the Postal Service.[19]

Young Herbie Hancock
Young Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock 2008 Grammy Awards
Herbie Hancock, 2008 Grammy Awards








Today there are over 30,000 offices handling 48% of the world’s mail volume, providing careers for almost half a million people.[20] And while the future of the United States Postal Service remains uncertain, it is impossible to ignore its century’s long role in the African American community. Social worker and activist Paul Hill (1945- ) reminded that “some of our best, brightest men and women at some time or other worked at the post office. Some of them end up retiring from the post office, so the post office was very important as far as the institution for supporting the African American family in the African American community.”[21]

Postal worker Los Angeles March 2020
Postal worker, Los Angeles, March 2020

[1] “The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service: Colonial to Antebellum: The Beginning of Discrimination,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed July 9, 2020.

[2] “The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service: Reconstruction: Successes and Challenges,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed July 9, 2020.


[4] Ibid.

[5] Harold Pates (The HistoryMakers A2005.263), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 12, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Harold Pates recalls his father’s work for the post office.

[6] James H. Lowry (The HistoryMakers A2003.026), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 30, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, James Lowry discusses his father’s career with the U.S. Post Office.

[7]William E. Lowry, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.031), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 19, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, William E. Lowry, Jr. describes how his parents met.

[8] Tyrone Mitchell (The HistoryMakers A2012.152), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 27, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Tyrone Mitchell talks about his father’s work experience.

[9]“African-American Postal Workers in the 20th Century,” USPS, accessed July 8, 2020.

[10]Danny Glover (The HistoryMakers A2015.014), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 20, 2015, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Danny Glover recalls his parents’ employment at the U.S. Post Office Department.

[11]Norma Adams-Wade (The HistoryMakers A2014.083), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 6, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Norma Adams-Wade talks about her father’s education and career with the U.S. Postal Service after World War II.

[12] “African-American Postal Workers in the 20th Century.”

[13]Lillian Dickerson (The HistoryMakers A2005.040), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 7, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Lillian Dickerson remembers organizing against gender discrimination at the post office during World War II, pt. 1.

[14]Darwin N. Davis, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2005.050), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 16, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Darwin N. Davis, Sr. recalls how his father became the first black postal clerk in Flint, Michigan.

[15]James O. Webb (The HistoryMakers A2007.061), interviewed by Sasha Daltonn, February 12, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 7, James O. Webb remembers changing his major to business.

[16]Herbie Hancock (The HistoryMakers A2014.260), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 13, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 11, Herbie Hancock recalls balancing his music career with his work at the post office.

[17]“The History and Experience of African Americans in America’s Postal Service: 1940s–1960s: The Double Edged Sword,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed July 9, 2020.

[18]Alvin Little (The HistoryMakers A2002.059), interviewed by Samuel Adams, April 24, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 13, Alvin Little talks about joining the postal service.

[19]“African-American Postal Workers in the 20th Century.”

[20] “Postal Facts,” USPS, accessed July 8, 2020.

[21] Paul Hill (The HistoryMakers A2004.025), interviewed by Regennia Williams, March 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Paul Hill talks about the post office’s role in livelihood of the African American community.

Black Presidents at PWIs – History in the Making

Dwight A. McBride The New School, Lynn Perry Wooten, Jonathan Holloway Rutgers University, Simmons University, Gregory Washington George Mason University, Darryll Pines University of Maryland, and Michael V. Drake University of California

Despite everything this year has brought, the past several months have given us something exceptionally noteworthy: the first African American presidents at six different prestigious universities.

In April, Dwight A. McBride became president of The New School after having served as provost, executive vice president for academic affairs, Asa Griggs Candler professor of African American Studies and distinguished affiliated professor of English at Emory University. On July 1, 2020 alone, four African Americans assumed their new roles as university presidents. Lynn Perry Wooten now leads Simmons University, leaving the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business where she was senior associate dean for student and academic excellence and clinical professor of strategy, management and organizations. Jonathan Holloway heads up Rutgers University after three years as provost of Northwestern University. Gregory Washington, the former dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine, is now president of George Mason University. And Darryll Pines, after working for the University of Maryland since 1995, last serving as dean of the engineering school, is now president of the institution. Last but not least, Michael V. Drake, now finishing up his presidency at The Ohio State University, assumes leadership of the University of California system on August 1, 2020.

These six universities have certainly made large gains through the appointment of exceptional, barrier-breaking leaders, helping make 2020, in the midst of COVID-19 and worldwide unrest truly historic.

Favorite Quote

The Honorable Richard HatcherNo One Will Save Us But Us.

The Honorable Richard Hatcher

Former Mayor of Gary, Indiana

Recent News

Scroll to Top