Courtney Jenkins tried driving a forklift and working at a fast-food restaurant after graduating from West Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School. Then he listened to his stepmother’s advice: apply for a job at the U.S. Postal Service.
Like thousands of African Americans, Elaine Jenkins, 64, used the post office as a pathway to the middle class. Her stepson heard her stories of her career success, and eventually decided to follow in her footsteps.
“The post office has been a great equalizer for people of color, and Black people especially,” said Courtney Jenkins, 32, who works as a clerk in the Linthicum mail processing center.
After a dozen years at the post office, his salary is in the high $60,000s, more than double what he earned in earlier jobs.
“People like me can come and work hard and be afforded a working class lifestyle and become homeowners and send our kids to college,” he said.
The Postal Service work force is more racially and ethnically diverse than the overall U.S. labor force, according to the Pew Research Center. Black employees make up 23% of the service’s work force, which is 10% higher than the national workforce generally. About 60% of the 15,213 postal employees in Maryland and Washington, D.C., are Black.
Maryland postal workers are busy these days processing thousands of mail-in ballots for the November 3 election, despite having to deal with the threat of a series of cost-cutting measures proposed earlier this year by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
The cuts have been put on hold for now, but history shows postal workers, especially Black ones, have faced difficulties, as well as received life-changing opportunities.
The post office is a “microcosm of society”
For more than a century, steady work delivering and processing mail has been a stabilizing force for Black families in Baltimore, like the rest of the country, said Philip Rubio, a postal service historian and professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Rubio said the Black struggle for equality mirrors the challenges and successes African Americans have found at the post office. A ban against Black workers carrying the mail was lifted in 1865 and in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the government job.
Rubio said unions strengthened the working conditions along the way by promoting fair wages and better working conditions.
The pay for most letter carriers, postal clerks and mail handlers ranges from $35,000 to $60,000 a year, according to Freda Sauter, a Postal Service spokeswoman.
At age 49, Rachel Walthall of Owings Mills has worked for the post office for more than half her life. She was recruited for federal service out of Walbrook High School in West Baltimore.
She said taking the job allowed her to purchase her first home at age 22 in Baltimore County and, as a young Black mother, provide for her daughter and four sons.
Walthall said she was able to pick a work shift that gave her the best chance to be an active parent. She went into work at 2 p.m. after she saw her kids off to school and prepared meals for the day. Her shift ended at 10:30 p.m., and she was home to make sure they were safe and in bed.
“I am a proud postal worker,” said Walthall, a national business agent with the American Postal Workers Union. “I take what we do as postal workers very seriously. We take the oath to protect the sanctity of the mail.”
Otis Taylor, a West Baltimore native who lives in Towson, retired in 2018 after 42 years with the Postal Service. After serving in the Air Force, Taylor took a job as a post office clerk for the allure of decent pay and the security of a government job.
Taylor, 66, grew up as the youngest of seven children, born to a father who worked as a laborer and a mother who worked as a custodian.
He used his shift flexibility at the post office to earn a paralegal certificate and eventually a bachelor’s degree from Coppin State University.
“I am a firm believer that the post office is a microcosm of society,” Taylor said. “There are impediments and opportunities. There is good and bad.”
Postal jobs can be a “life preserver”
Andre M. Perry, a fellow at Brookings Institution, said employment security that comes with stable paychecks, livable wages and benefits, and opportunities for advancement helped Black men and women in Baltimore, and elsewhere in the U.S., lessen the legacy of structural racism.
And as one family member finds job security, it’s more likely others in the family will, allowing them to build generational wealth, he said. The advantages are felt across the community. With economic stability comes less risk-taking behaviors and a decreased chance the person will interact with the criminal justice system. Perry said good jobs and social justice are inextricably linked.
The post office has "proven since Reconstruction, that you can employ your way toward inclusion,” said Perry, a scholar-in-residence at American University and author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”
“In places like D.C. and Baltimore, [the Postal Service] really comprises a large chunk of the middle class population.”
For many, Perry said the post office has been a “life preserver.”
About 10 years ago, Courtney Jenkins said he was talking to his friend Michael Robinson. Robinson, according to Jenkins, was working at a big box store but couldn’t get full-time hours or earn a wage that would allow him to support himself.
His friend wanted Jenkins to help him apply for a job with the Postal Service. But that never happened. It was their last conversation; Robinson was shot and killed in Cherry Hill soon after.
Breaking News Alerts
Jenkins called it a devastating moment.
“I had this great job, great wages, great benefits,” said Jenkins, who now lives in Randallstown. “Among my peers I was an anomaly. We were from the same place, had the same education, were the same age, from the same demographic.”
In addition to his clerk role, Jenkins said he became a union steward and went on to win election as director of organization and legislation for the American Postal Workers Union Local 181.
Elaine Jenkins, Courtney’s stepmother, said she started working for the post office in 1986 and spent 22 years with the service. She started as a part-time clerk who sorted letters and rose to become an executive in the human resources department.
The job "changed the trajectory of where I was headed,” she said.
Living in Pikesville now, she retired in May 2019 after leaving her post office job in the mid-2000s to work elsewhere in the federal government.
“I was served well and given opportunities."