One commentator noted the tendency of local prejudices to crystallize into policy:
If a policy of a particular post office is to bar Negroes from clerkships and make them carriers, then that policy is adhered to religiously. If it applies to Money Order, Stamp, and General Delivery windows, it likewise becomes a rule.
Employees were sometimes not only assigned to different types of work depending on their race, but also to different rooms, or different sections of the same room. As late as 1949 the New Orleans Post Office maintained segregated “swing rooms,” or break rooms for employees; as late as 1955 many Post Offices in Alabama, including those in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile, maintained segregated swing rooms and toilets.
In the 1940s a string of executive orders battled racial discrimination in the federal workplace:
— In November 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order # 8587, eliminating the photograph requirement for civil service applicants.
— In 1941 Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, reaffirming “the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in . . . government because of race. . .” The order also created the Fair Employment Practice Committee to investigate complaints of discrimination, redress valid grievances, and advise government agencies on how best to comply with the order. The committee chairman and its members served without compensation.
— In 1943 Executive Order 9346 again reaffirmed “the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of any person . . . in Government by reason of race . . .” This order reinvented the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC), giving the committee more teeth and its chairman an annual salary.
— In 1946, with Executive Order 9808, President Harry S. Truman created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, to investigate the protection of civil rights by federal, state, and local governments, and to issue a written report with recommendations on how to strengthen the civil rights of all Americans. The committee issued its report, “To Secure These Rights,” on October 29, 1947.
— In 1948, in Executive Order # 9980, Truman reiterated that “all personnel actions taken by Federal appointing officials . . . be based solely on merit and fitness,” and ordered that the head of each government department was “personally responsible for an effective program to insure that fair employment policies are fully observed,” directing each to appoint a Fair Employment Officer to help carry out such policies, under the “immediate supervision of the department head.” Decisions of the Fair Employment Officer could be appealed to the department head, whose decisions, in turn, could be appealed to a newly-created Fair Employment Board in the Civil Service Commission.
Patriotic propaganda during World War II called for all Americans to unite to fight at home and abroad for the American ideals of freedom and democracy, but domestically, African Americans were often treated like second-class citizens. Some Post Office break rooms and restrooms in the South were still whites-only, and nationwide, white postal employees were often given preferred work assignments. In Saint Louis, a black employee was arrested in 1941 following an altercation that arose after the clerk refused to move to the rear of the Post Office’s cafeteria to drink his cup of coffee. In 1944 a postal employee in Baltimore noted that “south of Washington, D.C., to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single Negro supervisor or window clerk serving any of the post offices.” Even in cities like Chicago, where blacks were politically powerful, less than 3 percent of postal supervisors were black.
Image of 1942 U.S. Government patriotic poster promoting national unity during World War II. An illustration on the poster shows mechanics working on an armored tank. The text on the poster reads: “Schmidt, Hrdlicka, Du Bois, Nienciewiscz, Cohen, Lazarri, Santini, Williams, Kelly: Americans All.” “‘It is the duty of employers and labor organizers to provide for the full participation of all workers without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.’ Franklin D. Roosevelt”
Government poster promoting national unity, 1942
World War II caused U.S. presidents to once again intervene in the “race problem,” which they had largely avoided since Reconstruction. (courtesy Library of Congress)