Colonial to Antebellum: The Beginning of Discrimination

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Postmaster General Timothy Pickering, in office (1791-1795).
Courtesy of Library of Congress

African Americans have been involved unofficially in the delivery of mail since the beginning of slavery in America. Slave masters used enslaved Africans to deliver mail and packages between plantations and town. In 1794, Postmaster General Timothy Pickering wrote regarding a mail route in Maryland that  “… if the inhabitants … should deem their letters safe with a faithful black, I should not refuse him … I suppose the planters entrust more valuable things to some of their black[s].”(1)

The practice of using slaves to transport mail continued in America although many white citizens objected. In April 1801, Postmaster General Joseph Habersham acknowledged these objections and wrote to the Frankfort, Kentucky postmaster that using slaves as mail carriers “was generally allowed in the Southern States by my predecessors in office. I made no objection to it especially as it came within my knowledge that slaves in general are more trustworthy than that class of white men who will perform such services- the stages … [on] the Main Line are driven by Slaves and most of the Contractors employ them as mail carriers in the Southern States.”(2)

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Postmaster General Joseph Habersham, in office (1795-1801).
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The concerns about allowing slaves to carry the mail 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.(3) Postmaster General Gideon Granger voiced his concerns in a letter to Senator James Jackson of Georgia, Chairman of the Committee of the Senate on the Post Office Establishment, in which he stated “… 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 traveling 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.”(4)

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Postmaster General Gideon Granger, in office (1801-1814).
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Heeding Postmaster General Granger’s warning, Congress declared on May 3, 1802 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 post-roads, either as a post-rider or driver of a carriage carrying the mail.”(5) In 1828 the ban was extended, under Postmaster General John McLean, to include the regulation that “if negro labor was required ‘to lift the mail from the stage into the postoffice’, it must be ‘performed in the presence and under the immediate direction of the white person who has it in custody.’”(6) It was not until 1862 that the heightened regulation was lifted by Congress.(7)

1) Timothy Pickering to John Hargrove, August 8, 1794, National Archives Microfilm Publications 601, Letters Sent by the Postmaster General, 1789-1836, Roll 3, 372-372.

2) Joseph Habersham to Isaac E. Gano, National Archives Microfilm Publication 601, Letters Sent by the Postmaster General, 1789-1836, Roll10, 321.

3) Jenny Lynch, “African-American Postal Workers in the 19th Century” United States Postal Service," (accessed 2009)

4) Walter Lowrie and Walter S. Franklin, eds., American State Papers, Class VII: Post Office Department (March 4, 1789 to March 2, 1833), (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 27.

5) Public Statues at Large of the United States of America from the Organization of the Government in 1789 to March 3, 1845 … Volume II (Boston, MA: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 191.

6) Leon F. Litwack, “The Federal Government and the Free Negro, 1790-1860” in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 43, Issue 4, (October 1958), 270.

7) Lynch.