Minnie M. Cox: A Postmaster’s Story

Minnie M. Cox (1869-1933) graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee with a certificate in teaching — but she is better known for her role as postmaster under three different presidents. Mrs. Cox and her husband, Wayne W. Cox (1864-1916), were both politically active individuals, and supported the Republican Party. It was because of this support that she was appointed to the position of postmaster of Indianola, Mississippi. Mrs. Cox was first appointed in 1891 by President Benjamin Harrison, when it was decided that no white Republican qualified for the job — she was possibly the first African American woman to hold such a position. She was reappointed postmaster in 1897 under President William McKinley and continued in this role under President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Indianola position of postmaster was one of the most respected and lucrative public posts in the area, as it served approximately 3,000 patrons and paid $1,100 annually — a large sum at that time.(1) Mrs. Cox was known for her efficiency and dedication. She was also known for working long hours, and she even personally covered late rent on post office boxes for Indianola’s citizens to avoid any possible conflict with her patrons. She even installed a telephone in the post office, at her own expense, so patrons could call and check if they had any mail to pick up.(2)

Initially, very few complaints were raised about Mrs. Cox’s appointment as postmaster. As time passed, however, concerns arose from the citizens of Indianola. During this time, Republican politics were being restructured by President Theodore Roosevelt, and the new party stance shifted so that it no longer continued the Reconstruction policy of placing African Americans to political appointments. The white citizens of Indianola called for the elimination of African Americans from leadership positions, and specifically for the removal of Mrs. Cox.(3) In doing so, they hoped to create an opening for a white postmaster.

In the fall of 1902, James K. Vardaman, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth and a white supremacist, began delivering speeches reproaching the people of Indianola for “tolerating” Mrs. Cox as postmaster. (4) His motive for these speeches was not only to spread his white supremacist message, but also to expel Mrs. Cox from her position with the hopes of obtaining it and the position’s salary for himself. The white townspeople of Indianola began calling meetings and voted to demand that Mrs. Cox resign from her office by January 1, 1903, a year earlier than her commission end date in 1904. While she refused to step down prior to the end of her term, Mrs. Cox made it known that she would not be a candidate for re-appointment.(5)

The situation in Indianola began to deteriorate further as the white citizens of Indianola began to resent Mrs. Cox and her husband more and more for their prosperity and success. It became clear that Mrs. Cox would be in physical danger if she did not comply with the threats of the white citizens of Indianola. These threats concerned postal inspector Charles Fitzgerald, who suggested that “as a bonafide federal officer, Mrs. Cox should be protected, by federal troops if necessary, in the discharge of her duties.” However, President Roosevelt made it clear that there would be no need for federal troops and refused to accept Mrs. Cox’s resignation. Instead, he suspended the Indianola post office on January 2, 1903. Through this suspension, Roosevelt effectively showed Indianola citizens that mail would be rerouted until Mrs. Cox could resume her duties. The atmosphere, however, became so hostile that Mrs. Cox left Indianola for her own safety on January 5, 1903.(6) 

In response to the town’s actions against Mrs. Cox, President Roosevelt ordered the Attorney General to prosecute any citizens who had violently threatened Mrs. Cox. Furthermore, the Postmaster General decided to reduce the rank of the Indianola Post Office from a third-class to a fourth-class office on the grounds that the year's lower postal receipts did not warrant third-class status.(7)

The controversy surrounding Mrs. Cox’s position made news across the country. It was debated for four hours in the United States Senate and made the headlines of major newspapers across the country. On February 7, 1903, the Cleveland Gazette ran the headline, “Mrs. Minnie Cox, Postmistress of Indianola- A Faithful and Efficient Official Driven From Office by Southern White Brutes.”

1) Willard B. Gatewood, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Indianola Affair” in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 53, No. 1, (January, 1968), 48-49.

2) “The Unsung Heroes of Mississippi,” Manuscripts Collections of the McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi,  1-2.

3) Ibid, 2.

4) Gatewood, 55.

5) Ibid, 56.

6) Ibid, 59-61

7) Ibid, 60, 67.