That Time Teddy Roosevelt Battled Racism in a Small Mississippi Post Office
Minnie M. Cox was a college-educated, politically active, progressive-thinking, intelligent, organized, and capable woman living in Indianola, Mississippi, north of Jackson. She was also an African American woman. After she was appointed to serve as the postmistress of Indianola, she was the target of threats by some of the white citizens of the town. Things got so bad that President Theodore Roosevelt got involved in 1903, though in the end, the people of this Southern town got what they wanted … Cox was out, and a white postmaster took her place. Let’s take a closer look at the time Teddy Roosevelt battled racism in a small Mississippi post office in 1903.
Minnie M. Cox, a Remarkable Woman
Minnie Cox was born Minnie M. Geddings in 1868 in Lexington, Mississippi. Her parents Mary and William Geddings owned a restaurant which helped them to be better off financially than most Black families in the deep South at that time. They were able to afford to send Minnie to college. In 1888, she graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a historically black university, with a degree in teaching. She took a teaching position at the Indianola Colored Public School. There, she met William Cox, a fellow teacher who also served as the school’s principal. They married in 1889.
In 1890, William Cox left the teaching profession and took a job with the United Railway Postal Service which provided him with enough income to purchase 160 acres of land. Throughout the next several years, the Coxes continued to purchase land and add to their assets and wealth. At the time, they were among the state’s wealthiest African Americans and moved into a home in the white section of town becaming active in the community. William Cox was a city alderman and the chair of the county’s Republican organization.
Post-Civil War Reconstruction policies were in place in the late 1890s. These policies were designed to make it easier for African Americans to find work in the South, but the policies also supported the appointments of African Americans to certain political appointments. Today, we don’t really think of the post office as a political appointment, but the position of postmaster or postmistress was a lucrative public post at the time.
Postmistress Minnie Cox
It was perhaps partly due to these Reconstruction policies and partially to thank the Coxes for their continual political activity that Minnie Cox was first appointed to the position of postmistress of Indianola, Mississippi, in 1891 by then-President Benjamin Harrison. She was reappointed by President William McKinley when he took office, and again by President Theodore Roosevelt.
For her job as postmistress, Minnie Cox earned $1,100 per year, which was a lot of money at the turn of the 20th century. By all accounts, Minnie Cox excelled at her job. She was hard-working and dedicated and willing to put in long hours. She used her own money to have a telephone installed in the post office so residents of the town could call to see if they had mail waiting for them. She even covered the rental fees for post office boxes from some of the citizens of Indianola when they fell behind in paying them. For several years, no one in Indianola questioned the work she was doing, and she received very few complaints.
A White Supremacist’s Target
In the early days of the 1900s, the Reconstruction-era policies of including African Americans in political appointments ended. Across the South, white citizens clamored to see other white citizens replace African Americans in public posts. Indianola was no different, but the root of the trouble began with a white supremacist named James K. Vardaman who was the editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper. Beginning in the fall of 1902, Vardaman wrote and published a series of editorials personally attacking Minnie Cox and shaming the citizens of Indianola for “tolerating” a black woman in the position of postmistress.
Vardaman, who would go on to become the governor of Mississippi and, later, a U.S. senator, was a vile, hate-filled man. He advocated lynching “every Negro in the state” and added that it was necessary to “maintain white supremacy.” Vardaman was not just upset that Minnie Cox, a black woman, was serving in a public post. He was outraged that the Coxes had been able to increase their personal wealth, purchase land, and “live like white people.” In fact, that was probably his biggest reason for targeting Minnie Cox. She demonstrated how African Americans could rise to a position of power and privilege and that terrified him.
Stirring Up Trouble
James Vardaman’s series of editorials … many of them shaming the people of Indianola … struck a nerve with some of the people in town. White citizens of Indianola called several meetings to discuss the issue. A common thread in these meetings focused not on Minnie Cox’s job performance, but on the wealth, power, and prestige that the Coxes had in the community. Many people were, quite frankly, jealous and wanted to see the “uppity” Coxes knocked down a peg. In one meeting, they voted to demand that Minnie Cox resigns from her post on January 1, 1903.
The Battle Heats Up
Minnie Cox refused to resign from her post, though she did say that she would not seek reappointment when her term was up in two years. Not good enough. The situation deteriorated quickly, and Minnie Cox feared for her safety. She appealed to the mayor and sheriff of Indianola for protection, but they both refused to help her. She changed her mind and tendered her resignation, effective January 1, 1903.
The postal inspector, Charles Fitzgerald, was so concerned that he contacted President Theodore Roosevelt saying, “as a bonafide federal officer, Mrs. Cox should be protected by federal troops, if necessary, in the discharge of her duties.”
President Roosevelt’s Response
President Teddy Roosevelt pondered Fitzgerald’s request to send federal troops to protect Minnie Cox but came up with his own solution. First, he made it clear that he refused to accept her resignation. Next, he informed the people of Indianola that he was suspending postal operations in the town through the remainder of Minnie Cox’s term as postmistress. What that meant was that Minnie Cox would remain in the position of postmistress for the town and receive her full pay, but the town would not have postal service. All mail going into and out of Indianola would be re-routed until Minnie Cox could safely resume her position. This was President Roosevelt’s passive-aggressive way to make the people of Indianola suffer for their treatment of Cox.
And since President Roosevelt wasn’t generally known for being passive-aggressive, he added more to it. He ordered the Attorney General to prosecute any person who violently threatened Minnie Cox. Later, he had the Postmaster General reduce the rank of the Indianola Post Office down to a fourth-class office based on its low postal receipts during the time the post office was suspended.
The Rest of the Story
Newspapers across the country covered the story. Minnie Cox was painted as a “faithful and efficient” public servant, which she was. The headlines explained that she was “driven from office” by racist “Southern white brutes”, which was also true. Across the North, Minnie Cox was a hero who was dedicated to her community. But in Southern newspapers, the story took a different slant. Minnie Cox was painted as an uppity Black woman who was taking a position that should have been granted to a white man. She was the very image of what white Southerners feared.
Two days after President Roosevelt voiced his outrage over her treatment, Minnie Cox and her husband, William, moved out of Indianola. When her term as Indianola’s postmistress expired, the post office was reopened, and a white man was appointed as the new postmaster. The Coxes eventually moved back to Indianola and opened the Delta Penny Savings Bank, one of the first black-owned banks in Mississippi.
The post office in Indianola was renamed the “Minnie Cox Post Office” in 2008. The plaque on the building says, “in tribute to all that she accomplished by breaking barriers.”