African American postal clerks union meeting: 1932
Members of Local 148 of the National Federation of Post Office Clerks (NFPOC) pose for a photograph at a meeting November 15, 1932 in Washington, D.C.
The union was a dual “Jim Crow” union of the NFPOC. Local 140 was the all-white union in the city.
Prior to the Civil War, African Americans were barred from the Postal Service, although slaves were used at times to sort mail. The first African American postal worker in Washington, D.C. was John W. Curry who was first appointed as a clerk in 1868.
Curry took a position as a letter carrier in 1870 and worked until his death in 1899. He was a member of letter carriers Local 142 before that organization barred African Americans from membership.
After 1900, in cases where African American workers were refused admission to an affiliated American Federation of Labor (AFL) union, the federation adopted a policy of organizing them into separate locals or directly affiliated ‘federal’ labor unions.”
This policy was sanctioned by Article XI, Section VI of the AFL Constitution, which read: “Separate charters will be issued to central labor unions, local unions, federal labor unions, composed exclusively of colored members, where in the judgment of the Executive Council it appears advisable and to the best interests of the trade union movement to do so.”
The 1914 formation of the National Alliance of Postal Workers chapter in Washington, D.C. was formed as a result of the postal clerks dual unions along with the total exclusion of African Americans from the letter carriers Local 142.
The Alliance was formed to fight discrimination in the Postal Service and for better pay and conditions. Many African American postal workers through the years held dual memberships in the traditional unions as well as the Alliance.
Postal clerks Local 148 later became the center of efforts by progressive unionists in the Post Office to abolish the separate locals in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s.
The NFPOC had integrated local unions in the north and resolutions were introduced in the 1940s to end dual unions resulting in watered down resolutions calling for working toward that end.
New York Local 10, one of the integrated locals, introduced a new resolution at the 1952 national convention to “make a determined effort to bring about the consolidation of existing dual locals.”
The language was further diluted through amendment before the white president of Local 140, Carl Malone, rose to speak saying the resolution was unnecessary because a “joint council” between the two locals was satisfactory.
African American delegate Robert Bates from Local 148 rose to speak and echoed Malone,
“Mr. Chairman, I want to confirm more or less the statement by Mr. Malone…I think the two organizations are making definite progress toward solving their own problems and I feel this resolution should be rejected because it is not necessary.”
With a black delegate undercutting progressive efforts, the resolution failed and the segregated locals continued.
Bates, however, found the promise of working out the problems between the two locals hollow.
At the 1956 and 1958 conventions, Locals 10, 148 and 251 brought resolutions for the national officers to step up efforts to eliminate dual unions.
A 1956 referendum was held by the all-white Local 140 in Washington, D.C. on the question of merging with the all-black Local 148 resulted in s a lopsided defeat of the merger 407-66.
Instead of declining, dual locals were actually growing with four new ones applying for membership at the 1958 convention.
Another resolution was put forward at the 1958 convention, sponsored by Bates among others, for the national leadership to end dual locals and merge any existing ones.
The resolution failed. The upholding of Jim Crow along with some other issues of union democracy and militancy led about one-third of the NFPOC to disaffiliate and form the National Postal Clerks Union (later renamed the National Postal Union-NPU).
In 1961, the NFPOC merged with another union and ostensibly ended dual unions. But the progressives of the NPU were still not satisfied and did not come back into the fold until the creation of the American Postal Workers Union in 1971.
[Dates and identifications of the location of the photograph are from notes on the image and are not confirmed]
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Photograph by Addison N. Scurlock. The image is courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 618ns0177472sc.tif (AC scan)