Close to 500 African Americans, including 116 postmasters, are known to have been employed in the postal service following the Civil War, although the actual number is likely higher. Many major cities including Charleston, SC; Little Rock, AR; and New Orleans, LA as well as some small southern towns had African American postmasters during Reconstruction. The majority of these postmasters had been free before the Civil War. Some, however, had formerly been enslaved and sought education either while serving in the Union army or in schools established by the Freedman’s Bureau. The earliest known African American postmaster, James W. Mason, was appointed by the U.S. Postmaster General in Sunny Side, Arkansas on February 22, 1867. He served in this role just over four years and was a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention during his term. Mason went on to serve as a state senator, county judge, and county sheriff. Image courtesy of John E. Bush IV.
The United States Postal Service (formerly the Post Office Department) has been both a place where African Americans have faced virulent discrimination, and a place where many African Americans pursued opportunities for advancement. African Americans have been involved in the delivery of mail since the beginning of slavery in America, when enslaved men and women carried mail and packages between homesteads, or to and from town. Today, Black Americans make up 21% of the Postal Service (USPS is one of the country’s most diverse federal work forces, comprised of 39% non-white employees and 40% women employees). Over centuries, Black postal employees have encountered various forms of segregation, inequality and mistreatment on all levels. They have also broken ground and glass ceilings alike, serving and excelling in positions of leadership and with great responsibilities, under the most challenging of circumstances. The Black experience in the postal system is one of tenacity, courage, and success which we are enthusiastic about exploring, without diminishing the racism and oppression that accompanied these triumphs. Truly, the narrative of African Americans in the postal service illustrates important changes throughout history, as well as systemic failures of this great, but flawed nation.
Image courtesy of John E. Bush IV.