I carried mail for 20 years for the United States Postal Service in Denver and in Raleigh and Durham, N.C. I retired early in 2000 to pursue a doctorate and a career as a historian, but I haven’t left the mail behind. Instead, I’ve become fascinated with the history of the post office and increasingly concerned about its future.
In the past week, the financially struggling USPS announced that it is targeting nearly 3,700 post offices for possible closure, including 32 locations in the Washington area. This move comes on top of other cutbacks in postal jobs and facilities.
Why is it important that the post office not only survive but thrive? If it were crippled or if it collapsed, in this era of Skype and instant messaging and social media, what would be the harm?
“Here comes Uncle Sam!” is what I used to hear on my mail route in west Durham. Mostly I heard this from older African Americans — along with the usual jokes about bills, junk mail and checks. Almost one-fifth of my customers received Social Security checks, and many of them relied on me to deliver their medications, including on Saturdays. What I didn’t fully appreciate until later was the reassurance they got from seeing their letter carrier and the connection I represented to the Postal Service and the federal government. For them, the post office was also quite likely a place where a relative had found employment — enabling a middle-class lifestyle, homeownership and college tuition for the kids.
The post office has historically helped all kinds of people find jobs, including immigrants, rural migrants and those pursuing higher education. For African Americans in particular, the post office has been a job magnet and a vehicle for social activism and community development. Since changes in the law allowed them to enter the ranks in 1865, African Americans fought segregation and discrimination in the Postal Service and its unions, and they played a key role in modernizing the agency. Historically, the post office has been the largest employer of African Americans, and from 1970 to 2000, blacks were at least twice as likely to work for the post office as whites.
The proposed post office closures cut across urban, rural and suburban lines. In the Washington area, they include locations in the U.S. Capitol, Silver Spring and downtown Leesburg. But post offices everywhere, whether retail or full service, are not just sources of jobs. Losing postal jobs and post offices means losing community.
In Washington, one office on the chopping block is the Lamond-Riggs location in Northwest. Very nearby is the headquarters of Branch 142, National Association of Letter Carriers, where I once interviewed Joseph Henry, the retired local president. He told me about working 12-hour days in Washington’s post office back in 1961, when it was known as “the plantation.” His story was one of 31 postal worker oral histories I compiled, stories that reveal a profound transformation of this institution by its employees.