Minnie M. Cox (1869-1933) graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and obtained a teacher’s certificate. She and her husband, Wayne W. Cox (1864-1916) were both politically active and supported the Republican Party. It was because of this support that Mrs. Cox was appointed postmaster of Indianola, Mississippi. Mrs. Cox was first appointed in 1891 by President Benjamin Harrison, after no white Republican qualified for the job. She was possibly the first African American woman to hold such a position. She was reappointed in 1897 under President William McKinley and continued as postmaster under President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Indianola position of postmaster was one of the most respected and lucrative public posts in the area, as it served approximately 3,000 patrons and paid $1,100 annually, a large sum at that time.(1) Mrs. Cox was known for her efficiency and dedication. She was also known for working long hours and she even personally covered late rent on post office boxes for Indianola’s citizens so as to avoid any possible conflict with her patrons. She installed a telephone in the post office, at her own expense, so patrons could call and check if they had any mail to pick up.(2)
Initially very few complaints were raised about this postmaster. As time passed, however, concerns arose in Indianola. During this time, Republican politics were being restructured by President Theodore Roosevelt. This new political stance no longer followed the Reconstruction policy of making African Americans political appointments. Hoping to comply with this new political agenda, the white citizens of Indianola called for the elimination of African Americans from leadership positions, specifically the removal of Mrs. Cox.(3) In doing so, they hoped to create an opening for a white postmaster.
In the fall of 1902, James K. Vardaman, the editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth and a white supremacist, began delivering speeches reproaching the people of Indianola for “tolerating a negro [sic] wench as a postmaster.”(4) His motive for these speeches was not only to spread his white supremacist message but also to expel Mrs. Cox from her postmaster position with the hopes of obtaining it and the position’s salary for himself. The white townspeople of Indianola began calling meetings and voted to order Mrs. Cox to resign from her office by January 1, 1903 although her commission did not end until a year from that date, in 1904. While she refused to step down prior to the end of her term, Mrs. Cox made it known that she would not be a candidate for reappointment.(5)
The situation in Indianola began to deteriorate further as the white citizens of Indianola began to resent Mrs. Cox and her husband more and more for their prosperity and success. It became clear that Mrs. Cox would be in physical danger if she did not comply with the requests of the white citizens of Indianola. These threats concerned postal inspector Charles Fitzgerald, who suggested that “as a bonafide federal officer, Mrs. Cox should be protected, by federal troops if necessary, in the discharge of her duties.” President Roosevelt made it clear that there would be no need for federal troops and refused to accept Mrs. Cox’s resignation. He instead suspended the Indianola post office on January 2, 1903. Roosevelt made it clear to the Indianola citizens that mail would be rerouted until Mrs. Cox could resume her duties. The atmosphere, however, became so hostile that Mrs. Cox left Indianola for her own safety, on January 5, 1903.(6)
In response to the town’s actions against Mrs. Cox, President Roosevelt ordered the Attorney General to prosecute the citizens who had threatened Mrs. Cox with violence. The Postmaster General also reduced the rank of the Indianola Post Office from a third-class to a fourth-class on the grounds that the year's lower postal receipts did not warrant third-class status.(8)
The controversy surrounding Mrs. Cox’s position made news across the country. It was debated for four hours in the United States Senate and made the headlines of major newspapers across the country. On February 7, 1903, the Cleveland Gazette ran the headline, “Mrs. Minnie Cox, Postmistress of Indianola- A Faithful and Efficient Official Driven From Office by Southern White Brutes.”