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African-American and white RPO clerks worked side by side in the cars.
African-American and white RPO clerks worked side by side in the cars.
African-American and white RPO clerks worked side by side in the cars.

History of the Service

Race Relations

“There was no trouble with the crews, no ma’am. We respected African American clerk-in-charge and we did what he said to do. Yes ma’am there was never, had any problem on the road.” —Johnnie Page of Decatur, Georgia

The Railway Mail Service (RMS) had a racially integrated workforce for most of its existence. Through the years, on the trains, as it was in American life in general race could be a source of tension. Black clerks face obstacles and discrimination in the service. In 1891, Black workers expressed discontent at their treatment by H.M. Robinson, the new chief clerk to the Railway Mail Service. The African American community charged that he forced them to do menial labor that was not within their job descriptions. There were also claims he had ordered an employee to start a fire in mail car with a mainly Black crew. White clerks began to protest against this treatment of their coworkers and called for an end to Robinson’s tenure.(1)

The presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) marked a particularly difficult period for race relations in the RMS. Discrimination was a problem prior to President Wilson but found a huge public forum during his presidency. The era of Wilsonian Progressivism was tainted by segregation and discrimination against the African American community. Federal segregation marked a huge set-back for Black workers in the Post Office Department, which at that time was the largest employer of African Americans in the federal government.

The first year of Wilson’s administration was a significant moment in government-sanctioned discrimination and federal segregation. Under Wilson, segregation was introduced into the Federal Government. Among those who were eager to embrace the separation of races was Wilson’s friend and Postmaster General, Albert Burleson. In a cabinet meeting Burleson let it be known that he “was anxious to segregate white and negro [sic] ... [to do what] was best for the negro [sic] and best for the service.(2)  He stated in that same meeting that the conditions aboard RMS train cars was “intolerable” when whites not only worked with African-Americans, but also used the same drinking glasses, towels, and washrooms.(3)

While Woodrow Wilson had managed to garner support from the Black community during his campaign for the presidency in 1912 by guaranteeing fairness, he did little to stop Burleson’s overt racism.(4) Unfortunately, many white clerks supported Burleson’s policies. In 1913, clerk Robert Prather of Little Rock, AR, presented Postmaster General Albert Burleson with a petition calling for the segregation of clerks in the Railway Mail Service by race. The petition was signed by 8,000 clerks and cited various grievances. These included resentment at having to share sleeping quarters with Black men and occasionally being subordinate to Black clerks with superior positions.(5)   

As this was happening, changes also began in the construction of railway cars.(6) Railway Post Office cars were traditionally made of wood and rode just behind the locomotive. This resulted, not surprisingly, in fiery blazes, killing clerks and burning mail. As steel cars became more common, there were debates over Black RPO clerks being regulated to older wooden cars while other clerks moved to the new steel cars.(7) African American RMS clerks faced perhaps an even larger tradition of discrimination, as most railroad brotherhoods did not admit Black workers, a trend that was extended to the Railway Mail brotherhood. African Americans and recent immigrants could be expected to take lower paying jobs because their exclusion from brotherhoods left them devoid of bargaining tools. American railroad brotherhoods, including the Railway Mail Association, refused admittance to their Black co-workers. Many Southern members in particular believed that admittance of Black men, “would be tantamount to admitting that the Negro [sic] is the ‘social equal’ of the white man;” a truth they refused to accept.(8) This exclusion from the various brotherhoods left African Americans with no gravitas with which they could improve their status. In August 1913, African American postal workers met in Tennessee to discuss their experiences. In October, representatives from thirteen states formed the National Alliance of Postal Employees (NAPE). The Alliance sought to help Black men provide for their families, begin a national journal for Black railway clerks, and be a tool the community could use to voice grievances and complaints. The National Alliance of Postal Employees was ultimately opened to all races. The NAPE since added other federal employees to its ranks and continues to this day.(9)

The white railway mail employee association took longer to come around and, in fact, needed a push from the law to accept Black men into its ranks. In 1944, a New York State court of Appeals ruled that the Railway Mail Association was a union and therefore, could not bar Blacks from membership. The group had been recognized as a fraternal beneficiary society prior to this decision and limited its membership to white men and Native Americans. The RMA’s classification as a union with the United States Department of Labor as well as its relationship with the American Federation of Labor made it clear that it was a union, not a brotherhood, forcing it to abide by union regulations and end its discrimination of Black workers.(10)

Although discrimination against Black clerks continued through the 1940s and 1950s, integration in the Railway Mail Service was the rule of law and became more and more accepted. Nanette Chastain, whose father Albert Osborne Chastain was a Railway Post Office Clerk and mainly worked out of Chicago and Cincinnati remembers, “The crew was integrated at a time that racial prejudice was still overt in this country. Dad never cared what color a man’s skin was—he only cared about the quality of the man and whether he did a good job and pulled his weight on the crew. It was a great lesson to teach his children.”(11)

1) “They Talk Strike” in The Atlanta Constitution 1881; Dec 14, 1891 p. 5 From Proquest Historical Newspapers

2) “The Negro and the New Freedom: Fighting Wilsonian Segregation” by Nancy Weiss from The Political Science Quarterly, Vol 84, No 1 p64

3) Joseph daniels, The Cabinet Diaries of Joseph daniels, 1913-1921, ed. E. David Cronon. Lincoln, Nebraska  1963 p. 32-33

4) Weiss, 63

5) “Mail Car Race Problem” from NYT May 25, 1913

6) National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, “History of the NAPFE” napfe.com

7) Ibid.

8) “Like Banquo’s Ghost, It Will Not Down: The Race Question and the American Railroad Brotherhoods 1880-1920” by Erin Arnesen, The American Historical Review, Vol 99, No 5 (Dec 1994) p. 1628.

9) NAPFE

10) “Court Forbids Railway Mail to Bar Negroes” from Herald Tribune Bureau, 1944.

11) Chastain, Albert Osborne. Interview. 02/2009. Print.

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