SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The continued downsizing of the U.S. Postal Service has especially hit African-Americans and armed forces veterans. These are two groups that have long relied on postal jobs for a good income, job security and a path to the middle class. For more, we're joined by Philip Rubio. He's a former letter carrier who's now an assistant professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University and author of the book, "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality."
Mr. Rubio, thanks for being with us.
PHILIP RUBIO: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: The U.S. Postal Service historically has been a large employer of African-Americans. Why is that?
RUBIO: Well, since 1865, since the end of the Civil War, it became a job magnet for African-Americans. Oftentimes, when they couldn't find work in the private sector, especially in the South when textile mills appear and they're only hiring whites or industrial jobs are only open to blacks, you know, the most dirty, dangerous or menial. But 1865's a date when they're actually able to start working.
SIMON: And this history has persisted into our time?
RUBIO: Yes. It was a place where African-Americans could find jobs to pursue while they were trying to find work, maybe in their chosen profession. Maybe they had degrees. It was not uncommon for doctors, lawyers and dentists, or people trying to get those, the graduate and professional degrees, to be working for the post office.
SIMON: And the post office, I guess, has been kind of a job magnet for veterans too?
RUBIO: Yes, it has. Since the Civil War, you know, with veterans' preferences for disabled veterans and, you know, that was a way for the federal government, you know, to tell veterans thank you for your service. The number one government agency was the post office. It was a secure job, the wages were decent, and so with each, you know, with each succeeding war, for instance, you get a lot of veterans coming back.
SIMON: And this has persisted to this day too?
RUBIO: It has. At one point, let's say, I think by 1948, half of all postal workers were veterans. It's down around 31 percent today because not as many people serve in the military, but it's still the biggest employer of veterans.
SIMON: How has working for the post office been for many a kind of gateway into the middle class?
RUBIO: Well, it provided a middle-class status for African-Americans especially. The fact that you had - the pay wasn't always great, but it was regular and with benefits and job security you could accumulate wealth. That means you could provide higher education for yourself and your children. By 1940, 28 percent of black postal workers had some college education, compared to 5 percent overall.
African-Americans also had the protection under the Civil Service Act of 1883. They also had protection in case a local postmaster wanted to fire them for civil rights activity. So, you know, this actually led to black community development.
SIMON: It's irresistible to note that it seems like there will be a substantial number of letter carriers and other people who work for the post office looking for jobs now. Where else can they work?
RUBIO: That's a good question, especially because one out of every two letter carriers, for instance, is over the age of 50. And, well, automation already removed a lot of clerk jobs. That's going to be hard for letter carriers and postal workers in general, to, you know, to transition. I mean, they have a skill and it is a skill, that they perform, and it's, you know, it's a service. The post office is not a charity. It's a - that we should keep alive just so people can have good middle-class incomes. It's a self-supporting universal service.
SIMON: Philip Rubio, assistant professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. Thanks very much for being with us.
RUBIO: Thank you for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.