1940s–1960s: The Double Edged Sword

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African American postal service employee standing behind hamper dumper machine, 1957. Courtesy of United States Postal Service

Between the 1940’s and 1960’s, the experience of the African American employees was characterized by the gradual removal of racially discriminatory practices in the Post Office Department (POD). The major advances in the eradication of segregation from the Post Office Department came during the New Deal (1933-1938) and World War II (1941-1945), when labor shortages forced the POD to hire more African Americans. Once they were employed, most of their jobs were protected and ensured by the civil service. One statistic shows that after 1942 the number of African Americans employed with the Post Office Department began to double nationwide.(1) 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. A 1967 study showed that the POD was the leading employer of African Americans in 12 major cities.(2)


Comparison of Employment Percentage and Population Percentage of African Americans in 12 Major Cities, 1967

The Post Office Department had much to offer potential employees. A job with the Department meant not only a regular salary, but also job security, a retirement pension, and prestige within the community.(3) When interviewed for this project, American Postal Workers Union President William Burrus stated that when he was considering a position between the Post Office Department and Standard Oil, his father advised him that “government positions are secure” and that he should take that into consideration when making his decision.

Listen to William Burrus discuss his decision to work for the Post Office Department

Burrus: I was offered employment, and I called my father who was at the time living in Detroit and to seek his advice, because I had also received employment opportunities with Standard Oil and I was scheduled to take my physical examination in both places on the same date so I had to make a choice.

Chen and Boyd: (laughter)

Burrus: So his advice to me was that um he did not want to make a decision for me (inaudible) understood that it was, it could be a life-changing decision and he wanted to give that to me. But he said that government jobs were secure, that that’s a consideration that I did include in my calculations, that it was secure, there were no layoffs, there were no strikes, there were no (inaudible) that occurred in the private sector. So I took the hint and took the post office physical examination and was hired.

Listen to William Burrus discuss discrimination

Burrus: The African American employees that were employed were from, they were the most intelligent from the community, they were individuals, many of whom had completed college. But because discrimination was still a major force in our society, they were unable to gain employment in the jobs of their profession and those who did they were at the bottom of the pay scale because they were school teachers or engineers or some other occupation. They were not paid commensurate to their education and thus they had other part-time employment. And many professional African Americans also worked at the post office while employed during the day light hours, they worked at their professions and during the evening hours they worked at the post office.

In addition to the promise of job security, many highly educated African Americans took jobs with the Post Office Department because they were unable to find well-paying employment in the private sector. Burrus recalled that the African American postal employees at his first postal job in Cleveland “were … the most intelligent from the community” adding that many had completed college.(4) Yet, as Burrus pointed out, “because discrimination was still a major force in our society, they were unable to gain employment in the jobs of their profession and those who did were at the bottom of the pay scale … they were not paid commensurate to their education and thus they had other part-time employment.”(5)  Burrus explained that while many African Americans were employed in the area of their education within the African American community, during the day, “during the evening hours they worked at the post office” as an additional source of income.(6) Because discrimination made it difficult for professional African Americans to find work outside of the Post Office Department, it is generally thought that African American postal employees had higher levels of education than many other postal employees. The Post Office Department was termed the “graveyard of Negro [sic] talent”.(7)

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African American employee sorting mail into pigeon holes, 1965. Courtesy of United States Postal Service

The Post Office Department continued to employ African Americans through the 1950’s. President Eisenhower issued an Executive Order in 1954 encouraging the promotion of African Americans. In response, the Post Office was praised for their “unprecedented promotions, based solely and purely upon qualifications and merit, or hundreds of colored [sic] employees to important supervisory levels in post offices throughout the United States.”(8) Before Eisenhower’s Employment Policy Order, Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield addressed the issue of discrimination within the Post Office Department. He issued “special and direct instructions that the Department was to re-examine and correct any practices shown to be discriminatory in the Postal Service.”(9)

During the 1960’s, the Post Office Department had high rates of African American employment. In 1966 a spokesman for the POD released a statement stating, “While others were discriminating against Negroes [sic], we were hiring them, and as a result we got a lot of good Negroes [sic] to promote.”(10) This statement was in reference to the fact that the three largest Post Offices in the country, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, all had African American postmasters. The three men, Henry W. McGee of Chicago, John R. Strachan of New York City, and Leslie N. Shaw of Los Angeles, together oversaw about 77,000 employees. The three offices handled approximately 11 billion pieces of mail a year.(11)

African Americans continued to make advances in the Post Office Department. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s Postmaster General, J. Edward Day made 13 top-level appointments of African Americans. Postmaster General Day stated, “The Post Office is 175 years old … It’s had all that time to equalize job opportunities and hasn’t. This is why we’ve taken some specific steps in the form of appointments of colored persons to top jobs.”(12)

In 1962, President Kennedy, while continuing the effort to rid the Post Office Department and postal unions of discrimination, issued Executive Order 10988. The Order allowed federal employees to bargain with management(13) and prohibited the creation of separate labor organizations based on race.

1) “Postal Employes; Government Mail Service is Biggest U.S. Employer of Negroes with 42,000 on its Payroll,” 1961-1966, 15.

2) “Employment Hits Peak, but More Negroes Are Jobless” (Press Release From the Post Office Department, Washington, D.C., October 13, 1967).

3) Ibid, 15.

4) William Burrus, Interviewed by Deanna Boyd and Kendra Chen, Tape Recording, Washington, D.C., June 20, 2007.

5) Ibid

6) Ibid

7) “Employment Hits Peak…”, 15.

8) “Joseph A. Clarke”, Post Office Department, (Washington, DC), 3.

9) Ibid, 4.

10) “Three largest U.S. Post Offices Directed by Negro Postmasters”, New York times (1857- Current file), November 13, 1966, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1551-2000), 131.

11) Ibid, 131.

12) “Postmaster Day”, December 2, 1961.

13) Legal Definitions, “Executive Order 10988 Law and Legal Definition”, US Legal,
definitions.uslegal.com/e/executive-order-10988 (accessed August 4, 2007).