When the President Fought White Supremacists

No, this isn’t a story about the current president. It’s about Teddy Roosevelt, the late president who on this date in 1903 shuttered the post office in Indianola, Mississippi, a punishment for locals’ racist intimidation of Minnie M. Cox, a black woman who was also the town’s postmaster.

Though Mrs. Cox had already held the role for well over a decade— President Benjamin Harrison appointed her in 1891, making Cox the nation’s first black female postmaster, and McKinley invited her back in 1897 — the combination of blackness, womanhood and power apparently become too much for self-conscious white chauvinists at the turn of the century. Egged on my white supremacist newspaper editor James K. Vardaman, local haters started protesting Cox at the end of 1902.

Finally, after weeks of awful invective and constant threats, including  the mayor and sheriff telling her they wouldn’t protect her from lynching, Cox involuntarily resigned her position.

Roosevelt was having none of it.

Upon receiving Cox’s coerced resignation, Roosevelt shot back, “The resignation…is not accepted” because it was tendered under duress, “forced by a brutal and lawless element purely upon the ground of her color…”

Roosevelt went on, “[Mrs. Cox’] character and standing in the community are endorsed by the best and most reputable people in town… Her moral standing in the community is of the highest.” The president then declared the post office closed until Mrs. Cox was welcomed back. That’s right: a president closed an entire post office to fight for a black woman. If locals weren’t mature enough to accept her, they weren’t mature enough to receive mail. It was a radical move, especially in 1903.

Though Roosevelt’s office noted that this hatred was hurting business, the president also reminded Americans of their national morality:

Business interests…is wholly secondary to the preservation of law and order and the assertion of the fundamental principle that this government will not connive at or tolerate wrong and outrage of such flagrant character.

The racists eventually ceded to American values and pulled back their anti-black attacks on Mrs. Cox, but the damage was done: Cox realized she could never be at home in Indianola and she and her family left town soon after. Her vacancy at the post office was soon filled by a white male replacement. Though the racists won by default, the fact that the President of the United States stepped up and stared them down is an historical moment worth remembering…  Wistfully, perhaps.

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