Monday, January 16, 2012
In the 1910s, when delivering mail was a hazardous job, the post office was one of the few places where African-Americans could find work. The bulk of long-distance mail was delivered by rail; the railway cars where mail clerks worked were made of wood and were prone to falling apart—while the train was in motion.
When steel cars began to replace the wooden ones, the job of delivering mail became safer. The Railway Mail Association, a labor union which excluded blacks, began to recruit white workers to displace blacks from the postal work. In 1913, a group of African Americans formed a union of their own to protect their jobs and give blacks a voice with the postal authorities.
Against all odds, this black union survived. By 1921, it had made enough progress that a bureaucrat in the post office assured the the president of the union that the union members would be “treated white”. The president replied that he would prefer that his members just “be treated right”.
Hence the title “Treat us right, not white”, a fascinating history of this union—the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees (NAPFE)—written by my friend Paul Nehru Tennassee, the noted historian, political scientist and labor leader. The book is available here.
The union will mark its 100th anniversary in 2013 at the foot of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, where it was founded. The union’s historian, Paul Nehru Tennassee, has a colorful history of his own which I hope will be told some day.
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