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 the Fisk graduate the nation’s first black female postmaster, and McKinley invited her back in 1897 — the combination of blackness, womanhood and power proved too strong for self-conscious white chauvinists at the turn of the century, and local haters started pressuring her to resign late in 1902, encouraged in large part by James K. Vardaman, a newspaper editor and noted white supremacist who used op-eds to attack Cox as a “negro wench” and other awful invective. Finally, after weeks of torment, including a moment when the mayor and sheriff told her they would not protect her from lynching, Cox involuntarily resigned her position.

But Roosevelt and his allies were having none of it. Upon receiving the 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.” He 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.

And while Roosevelt’s office noted that this hatred was hurting business, Roosevelt made sure to remind Americans of their national morality: “Business interests, which are being injured solely by the action of the law element…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: she 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 in this case, the fact that the President of the United States stepped up and stared them down is an historical moment worth remembering…  Wistfully, perhaps.