It’s hard to keep up with all of the headlines about the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) In the last several weeks, Time reported that the USPS inexplicably stopped updating its change of address database for much of August—as millions of Americans were requesting mail-in ballots. Last week, federal judges shut down attempts to stop extra or late mail delivery trips or overtime payments to postal workers. A September 23 ProPublica investigation found that Black mail-in voters in North Carolina were almost three times more likely to have their ballots thrown out than their white counterparts during the 2016 election.
These headlines about an ostensibly apolitical federal agency seemed to come from out of nowhere. Yet all Americans need to pay attention. This federal service that delivers mail to 160 million homes is under siege. The attack is coming from the inside — by Postmaster General DeJoy, a Republican mega-donor and a Trump crony with a clear conflict of interest; he is also a major shareholder in contractor companies that do business with his agency. The primary consequences of DeJoy’s tactics are decaying postal worker morale and delays in mail delivery, including ballots, packages, bills, checks and essential medications that all Americans rely on.
Black Americans should pay special attention to the weaponizing of the USPS. Historically, it’s been both a haven for Black American economic mobility and a convenient opportunity for our government to disenfranchise us.
This complex relationship goes back to the time when enslaved people were used to make deliveries between plantations and town, and disputes erupted about the safety of entrusting enslaved Americans with the mail. Nonetheless, after the Civil War, emancipation and throughout Jim Crow, Black Americans continued to labor in the postal service. Black women workers ensured the delivery of mail to soldiers during World War II.
At least since the 1950s, the post office has been one of the largest national employers of Black Americans, and it is well known in the Black community that a job with the post office was a potential stepping stone into the middle class. Postal service jobs were considered secure employment, with decent wages and benefits and were sought after especially by urban Blacks people. By the early 1960s, the post office was the country’s largest single employer of Black Americans. The current disempowerment of the USPS threatens the careers of an agency of half a million workers, 40 percent of whom are women and 39 percent people of color.
What is equally true is that decisions to disenfranchise and discriminate against Black citizens through the post office have historical precedents.
A congressional act prohibited Black Americans from working for the U.S. postal services from 1802 through 1865—though they clearly did in both slavery and freedom. Boston abolitionist and historian William Cooper Nell was employed as the first Black postal clerk—and the first Black federal employee—in 1863, two years before the federal law was overturned. In the 1890s, Black postmasters were particular targets of racist threats and intimidation. Minnie Cox of Indianola, Mississippi, was appointed postmistress of her town, which she eventually fled for her own safety. In 1898, Frazier Baker, postmaster of Lake City, South Carolina, was murdered along with his infant daughter by a white mob, incensed that he was exercising his authority as a postal official.
By the early 20th-century, Black figures who used the mail to organize found themselves slapped with lawsuits. In November 1917, former slave Callie House was imprisoned for ten months for mail fraud. House, a passionate and skilled orator, founded one of the first groups to advocate for reparations for those formerly in bondage—the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. The group raised the ire of Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, a conservative, wealthy segregationist from Texas. Burleson charged House with bilking African Americans of their money via mail—referring to fliers and membership dues. It was no coincidence that Burleson mandated the racial segregation of post offices, established segregated postal window services for the public, and initiated the mass firing of Black American postal workers. Under his leadership, the Post Office Department became an enthusiastic agent of Jim Crow.
Five years later, J. Edgar Hoover would initiate questionable mail fraud charges against Marcus Garvey for attempting to sell stock in his shipping company by mail. Garvey’s prosecution appeared to be retaliation for his successes in inspiring Black political activism and pride through the United Negro Improvement Association.
Today, almost 150 years after Black men gained the right to vote, 80 million Americans are likely to vote by mail in the election.
But Black people are overrepresented among the currently and formerly incarcerated, and states vary widely on whether those convicted of felonies can vote or when that right is restored, if it’s taken away. The disqualification of incarcerated Black citizens and voter suppression are only the latest tactics in a calculated strategy to continue to dilute the Black American vote and the importance of our choices to national elections.
And that’s all without the Trump administration’s machinations to make it more difficult for the USPS to assist the American public in exercising the fundamental right of a democratic citizenry: the right to choose our political leaders along with the right to vote them out of office. Hampering the USPS effectively continues the disenfranchisement of Black voters that the Republican Party has openly championed through other means, like redistricting and gerrymandering.
Defending, improving and even expanding the USPS is a critical racial justice concern that was recognized by the Bernie Sanders campaign. And it should be taken up by the Democratic Party ticket. But if history is our guide, what we can anticipate as we move closer toward November 3 is further destabilization of the USPS to disenfranchise Black voters in the short term, discriminate against Black workers in the longer term, and damage our democracy.
Claudia Ford, PhD, is a historian and interim chief diversity officer at the State University of New York at Potsdam.