A recent article assignment required me to do some research on the U.S. Postal Service. Along the way, I found this bit of history regarding the earliest days of the postal system, and the use of slaves to deliver the mail.
The Constitutional Post was founded in 1774 by William Goddard, as a way for the colonists to talk treason without fear of being caught by the British-run postal service. As such, the handling of mail was taken very seriously by America’s Founding Fathers, and up until 1799, the punishment for stealing U.S. mail was death, even for first time offenders.
In 1794, word got back to Postmaster General Timothy Pickering that slaves were being permitted to deliver letters. Pickering strongly opposed slavery, and responded that he approved of slaves handling the mail. His successor, Postmaster General Joseph Habersham, took things a step further in 1801, not only endorsing slaves as mail carriers, but even expressing a preference for them, writing, “especially as it came within my knowledge that slaves in general are more trustworthy than that class of white men who will perform such services.”
Unfortunately, as years passed and tensions over the issue of slavery intensified, the next Postmaster General, Gideon Granger, believed that allowing slaves to handle the mail was dangerous. Granger wrote to Congress, warning them that since the “most active and intelligent” slaves were typically the ones chosen to deliver mail, it was cause for concern, because once black men experience that level of responsibility “they will learn that man’s rights do not depend on his color. They will, in time, become teachers to their brethren.”
Congress agreed with Granger’s prediction, and responded by declaring that “no other than a free white person shall be employed in carrying the mail of the United States.” As a result, black men were not permitted to handle the U.S. mail again until 1865, after the end of the Civil War.
This sad and shameful time in U.S. history is painful to revisit, but necessary. This historical anecdote underscores the importance of cultivating and maintaining open communication, especially among marginalized groups. It’s essential to keep talking to one another, supporting each other, and working together to make things better. Don’t allow others to silence you–use your voice!
This story also spotlights a universal truth: one of the best ways to help a person realize their worth is by giving them a job, entrusting them with responsibility, and providing them a sense of purpose.