There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality
by Philip F. Rubio
University of North Carolina Press

Obtaining a job at the post office was considered to be a quite a coup for blacks, especially black men. A full-time postal employee could count on steady work, a good salary, paid vacations, health benefits, and for those who stayed thirty years, a guaranteed pension. I can still hear my late Aunt Clara proudly describing the boyfriend of one of her daughters: “Honey he got a good job; he work at the post office.” The only thing that topped dating a postal employee was dating a doctor or lawyer. As one of the largest employers of blacks in America, postal work was also crucial in lifting hundreds of thousands of African Americans into the middle class.

Philip F. Rubio, a former postal worker and current assistant professor of university studies at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, uncovered a treasure trove of documents and heretofore unused oral histories to bring us this unique story of the importance of jobs in the United States Postal Service (USPS) to the black community. Furthermore, he appears to be the first historian to link postal work with the civil rights, leftist and labor movements to show how African American men used their post office jobs to fight for social change.

The premise of There’s Always Work at the Post Office–the title is a comedic line from Hollywood Shuffle, a satiric sendup of racial stereotypes in Hollywood directed by Robert Townsend–is that through their employment with the USPS, African Americans had a tremendous impact on their communities, civil rights and labor relations that has never been recognized. To underscore the historical importance of postal work to the black community, Rubio gives the reader a list of black movers and shakers who either worked at the post office themselves or had parents or other family members who did. Among them are the actor Danny Glover; Homer Plessey, the plaintiff in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Heman Marion Sweatt, the plaintiff in the seminal civil rights case Sweatt v. Painter (1950); director Spike Lee; historian John Hope Franklin; the first black cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver; civil rights activists Amzie Moore and Dick Gregory; Percy Sutton, Manhattan borough president; and novelist Richard Wright. Postal work was also a favorite fall-back job for African American jazz musicians whose employment could be sporadic. Many of the black men who worked at the post office were college educated and veterans of the armed forces, but because of racism and discrimination, postal work was the best work they could find. Rubio says these men are “. . . not unique or coincidental but rather representative stories that locate black postal workers in an elevated black community status similar to that once occupied by mariners through the nineteenth century and Pullman porters in the twentieth.”

Before 1865 blacks were barred by law from postal service jobs. Racial prejudice was not the only reason for this; there was great fear that allowing blacks to work at the post office would give them the tools to communicate with slaves and abolitionists to incite slave insurrections. By the end of the Civil War, the USPS was the largest employer in the country. Yet it was not until 1869 that William Harvey Carney was hired as the first black mail carrier. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Carney was also the first African American winner of the Medal of Honor.) From that time well into the 1970's black postal workers have fought to gain employment with the postal service and to be treated equally with their white colleagues once they did.

Rubio focuses much of the book on black postal employees in the cities of New York and Washington, D.C. These cities had a rich history of civil rights activism from which the postal workers could draw. They were also a major factor in the 1970 nationwide wildcat postal strike–President Richard M. Nixon unsuccessfully tried using United States Army and National Guard troops to process the mail–which resulted in full collective bargaining rights for the major postal unions in 1971. Thus in making the fight for equality primary, African American postal workers were extremely influential in shaping today's post office and postal unions.

There’s Always Work at the Post Office is scholarly, richly detailed and heavily sourced. The timing of the book is especially propitious, given that the USPS is struggling to survive and African Americans make up so large a part of its workforce. While perhaps not a book for the casual reader, it is an incredibly valuable one nonetheless. Rubio has uncovered a vital link to the massive literature on the civil rights, leftist and labor movements, and rescued a crucial part of African American history.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.