Black History: Special Delivery!!
Minnie Cox (1869-1933) was appointed as post master in Indianola, Mississippi in 1891. Before her employment at the post office, Cox was an educator and school principal. She was a graduate of Fisk University. Initially she was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison to the postmaster role when there was no white Republican who qualified for the job. She is believed to be the first African American woman to hold a post master position. Her appointment was made during the post civil war reconstruction era when African Americans were appointed and elected to various political roles that had previously been unavailable to them before the Civil War. Cox was again reappointed in 1897 under President William McKinley and continued under the term of Theodore Roosevelt. Indianola was a predominately African American community. Minnie Cox and her husband were well respected members of the community.
The position of postmaster was a highly respected and well paid federal position. As postmaster, Cox oversaw postal services for approximately 3,000 residents and was paid $1,100 annually which would have been a significant salary at that time. She was known to have a strong work ethic; working long hours and even helping residents pay their rental fees on post office boxes when they fell behind. Cox even had a telephone installed in the post office at her own expense so that residents would have better communication with the post office. As the political climate began to change; hiring of African Americans in roles of this kind, fell out of favor. Cox was initially hired due, in part to her affiliation with the Republican party. However, during the Roosevelt presidential administration, the white community in Indianola decided to rally to eliminate African Americans from serving in leadership roles.
A petition was started within the community to remove Minnie Cox from her postmaster position; hoping that the role would then be filled by a white person. James K. Vardaman, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth and also a white supremacist was a vocal opponent of Cox. In one speech, Vardaman scolded the residents of Indianola for, “tolerating a negro wench as postmaster”. Vardaman wanted Cox removed so that he could take over the role himself. His speeches garnered greater support to remove Cox from her position. White residents demanded that Cox resign her position by January 1, 1903. Cox initially refused to step down before the end of her term but did indicate that she would not seek reappointment after her current term ended.
She soon found her physical safety to be at risk because of her refusal to step down. Local authorities refused to come to her aid. Postal inspector, Charles Fitzgerald saw these threats to Cox, as necessitating intervention by the federal government. He requested that if necessary, federal troops be dispatched to protect Cox since she was a federal employee. Fearing for her safety, Cox submitted her resignation. President Roosevelt intervened and indicated that that intervention of federal troops would not be necessary. He also refused to accept Cox’s resignation. Instead, President Roosevelt suspended mail service in Indianola on January 2, 1903 and told the city’s residents that mail service would be rerouted until Minnie Cox could safely resume her duties. He also ordered that Cox would continue to receive her salary during this time.
The city environment continued to remain hostile and Cox eventually left the Indianola fearing for her safety on January 5, 1903. President Roosevelt ordered that the citizens who had threatened Minnie Cox be prosecuted by the attorney general. This incident drew national media coverage and was also debated for several hours in the U.S. Senate. A year later, in 1904, at the time that Cox’s term would have expired, the post office was re-opened. However it was reduced in rank from 3rd class to 4th class. Minnie Cox died in 1933.
Willard B. Gatewood, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Indianola Affair” in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 53, No. 1, (January, 1968), 48-49.
“The Unsung Heroes of Mississippi,” Manuscripts Collections of the McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi, 1-2.