Delivering under pressure: What the USPS means to my family

Why We Wrote This

While many Americans have come to associate the U.S. Postal Service with junk mail, for many in Black middle-class families, the post office has long been a source of stability.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Virginia, July 31, 2020. The USPS is under financial strain. That's troubling for many Black families for whom the post office has long represented a beacon of opportunity.

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There’s one thing I can say about Dad. Whether at work or at home, he always delivered.

My dad is retired now, but he spent nearly 40 years working for the U.S. Postal Service. For many Black middle-class families like mine, the uncertain future of the USPS is about more than mail delivery or even the November election. Around a quarter of USPS employees are Black. Even with its struggles, the post office still represents a beacon of opportunity.

When my dad became a postmaster, his upward mobility wasn’t just about money. It was about the time that he had to spend with my brothers and me on weekends. Advancement doesn’t always show up in your wallet. Oftentimes, it shows up in childhood memories. I hardly remember many of the things my dad bought me as a kid. I do remember the time we spent together.

My dad always delivers for his family and community. When it comes to the matter of the post office, I’m hoping for a bit of deliverance, because I know what losing the post office will mean for working-class Black families.

During his nearly 40-year career with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), my dad worked countless hours. Some of that time poured over at home, when I begrudgingly typed up documents for him as a teenager.

There’s one thing I can say about Dad, though – whether at work or at home, he always delivered.

For many Black middle-class families like mine, the uncertain future of the USPS is about more than mail delivery or even the November election. Around a quarter of USPS employees are Black. Even with its struggles, the post office still represents a beacon of opportunity.

In some cases, those humble working-class upbringings have yielded professional and celebrity prestige. One example is Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of the women listed as potential picks for vice president on the Biden/Democratic ticket. Representative Bass’ father was a letter carrier. Another example is actor Danny Glover, who mentioned his parents and the post office in a USA Today op-ed last year. 

Courtesy of Ken Makin
The author with his father, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service for nearly 40 years.

The story of African Americans in the post office is similar to the story of Black folks in America – a story of hard-fought advancement in the face of cruel racism. Enslaved Africans were used to deliver mail between plantations and towns since the origins of human chattel enslavement in America (and the country itself). While there had always been some unrest about enslaved Black mail carriers, a slave rebellion in modern-day Haiti that began in 1791 crystallized that angst. At the turn of the 19th century, postal officials banned African Americans as mail carriers. Congress upheld the decision after a specific request from then-Postmaster General Gideon Granger to Georgia Sen. James Jackson, who was the chairman of the Committee of the Senate on the Post Office Establishment:

After the scenes which St. Domingo has exhibited to the world, we cannot be too cautious … plans and conspiracies have already been concerted by [slaves] more than once, to rise in arms, and subjugate their masters. 

… The most active and intelligent [slaves] are employed as post riders. … By travelling from day to day, and hourly mixing with people … they will acquire information. They will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. They will, in time, become teachers to their brethren. 

… One able man among them, perceiving the value of this machine, might lay a plan which would be communicated by your post riders from town to town, and produce a general and united operation against you.

On May 3, 1802, Congress passed an act which declared that “after the 1st day of November next, no other than a free white person shall be employed in carrying the mail of the United States, on any of the post-roads, either as a post-rider or driver of a carriage carrying the mail.” The act was upheld for over 60 years until 1865, which also coincided with Civil War-ending legislation.

The Reconstruction period was a time of great promise for African Americans, and the post office was an example. The ability to work as wage laborers would yield the opportunity for middle-class living. Black folks were appointed as postmasters, letter carriers, and clerks. Those gains subsided toward the end of the period, as white violence and Jim Crow reared their ugly heads. 

As it turned out, the ’60s – both the 1860s and the 1960s – were prime eras for Black advancement and the Black middle class within the context of the post office. During the course of the decade, Black postmasters were appointed to the country’s three largest post offices in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The demand for fair and equal treatment in the 1940s and 1950s yielded the opportunity for upward mobility and established protections for African Americans in the postal service. 

Black postal workers not only fought for equal treatment, though. They also fought for the right to unionize. The great postal strike of 1970 was a multicultural triumph that protected the wages of all postal employees.

Fair wages, fair treatment, upward mobility – in many ways, these are tenets of the American dream. These ideals manifest themselves uniquely when it comes to family life. When my dad became a postmaster, his upward mobility wasn’t just about money. It was about the time that he had to spend with my brothers and me on weekends. Advancement doesn’t always show up in your wallet. Oftentimes, it shows up in childhood memories. I hardly remember many of the things my dad bought me as a kid. I do remember the time we spent together.

My dad is retired now, but like any good postal employee, he’s still on the move. He’s the primary caretaker for my grandmother – his mom. He’s a volunteer for a local church league basketball team. During his days as a postal employee, he was a youth mentor in the inner city. 

My dad always delivers for his family and community. When it comes to the matter of the post office, I’m hoping for a bit of deliverance, because I know what losing the post office will mean for working-class Black families. 

Ken Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the “Makin’ A Difference” podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @differencemakin.

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