My Grandpops, Richard Wright, and the Chicago Post Office
It wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I fully realized the significance of my grandfather working alongside — and befriending — a guy named Richard Wright at the Chicago post office. My pops, a church elder, and Wright, a writer becoming, were both sorters at the old main post office — a cavernous multistory building overlooking the highway, downtown and not too far from the Sears Tower. Then, as it is now, working at the post office was a “good job.” A very good job. It was the kind of job that, along with being a Pullman porter or an elevator operator, helped to create the Black middle class in Chicago that was so instrumental in creating the Black political machine and finances that eventually paved the way for Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House.
My grandad died in 1988, and I’m sad I didn’t have enough foresight then to ask him all the questions I have now. If I could, I’d inquire: How did you meet Mr. Wright? What did you all talk about? Did you realize he was writing Native Son in his mind? How did you, a Black man, get this job at the Chicago post office in this era of history? Was it racist? Was it dangerous? Was it glorious?
All that history lost to death and time and inattention. But I’m a determined sort, so I asked my uncles and aunt, the only living children of Peter Samuels, what the story was. I faintly remember hearing about Wright being my grandpop’s roommate in a lodging house. There’s another version of the story where my great aunt owned a house on South Vincennes Avenue where she welcomed lodgers and Wright lived there for a spell. (Sit on that for a moment. A Black woman owned a lodging house in 1930s Chicago during the Great Migration, and she welcomed people in.) Census records clearly show Wright living on Vincennes Avenue with his own family, but the records don’t show where he lived prior to becoming a permanent postal employee. I believe my pops worked alongside Wright after the soon-to-be-novelist got a permanent United States Postal Service job as opposed to the temp one he held down for a short while.
My pops was born in 1908 or so, and the reasons the family fled Georgia are murky. Hush hush. Something to do with a White man disrespecting my great-grannnie and my great-grandpa stealing away in the dead of night in order to avoid a lynching. Back then, White folks would lynch Blacks for damn near anything. And who could stop them? My line wound up in Chicago thanks to White terror. But White terror didn’t stop us.
This is the casual nature of Black family history. Mine is not unique. Everyone I know from Harlem or from the South Side of Chicago or from Los Angeles or from Tampa has a story of their grandparents and their great-grands and the amazing things they overcame. Or didn’t. But that’s also the glory of it. The pride. When you are a Gen Xer who is Black and from the South Side of Chicago, your granddad will be driving down the street and tell you that he met Nat King Cole on this corner or hung out with Quincy Jones at this corner store. Your father will tell you about the time Martin Luther King came to the West Side and he witnessed an angry White mob throwing a bottle at his head, injuring him. Your mom will casually drop the knowledge that she — a Black woman — desegregated the teaching staff at a Chicago public school and she caught all kinds of hell for it, but she did it because the children deserved a single Black teacher. Your uncles will tell you that your grandpops hung out with Emil Jones, the senator, and oh, by the way, Pops and Emil helped found the largest Black-owned credit union in the city of Chicago. Within two weeks of opening, the group of Black men founders had gathered $225,000 from neighbors to start their Black bank.
When you go through your parents’ and grandparents’ things decades after they die, you might find handwritten letters from Shirley Chisholm, Order of the Eastern Star memorabilia, church leaflets that show that a twentysomething gospel legend Albertina Walker sang a solo at your great aunt’s funeral, and newspaper cut-outs of everything surrounding the death of Emmett Till.
When we study Black history as teens or even as college kids, it’s easy to think that this stuff happened in the “before times.” But really, in the grand scheme of things, this happened yesterday and just last week. My uncle Billy, an esteemed theologian and pastor for a South Side church and something of a historian himself, regales me with stories of my pops. Of course I remember dinner at Pops’ house and Sunday family football games on the campus of the University of Chicago and trips to the South to see family members who always, for some reason, lived to be 106. Whew. The questions I wish I had asked.
But I did ask Uncle Billy about Pops and Wright.
“Stories about James Baldwin and Richard Wright would have been strange to somebody growing up in my era,” said my uncle. “The really hip people knew Du Bois. Richard Wright and James Baldwin were just regular guys who were hip. We had no idea the impact they would have on America and the shaping of Blackness.”
“Richard Wright and my dad would throw mail, and they would talk while they were throwing mail,” said my uncle, who was eight or nine at the time. “To me, he was just a post office guy who worked with my daddy. But my daddy said, ‘That Richard is a smart fella, and I like talking to him.’”
The history surrounds us and is us. And not all of it is a big breakout moment, a march, or a headline. Some of it is quiet and takes place in a cavernous mailroom in downtown Chicago, where two Black men made pleasant work chitchat and eventually earned enough money to buy their own homes and make their own fortunes. All because they somehow made it north of the Mason Dixon line and got a job sorting mail at the post office.
Follow Momentum to read more stories that inform today’s understanding of systemic racism and the folks working to dismantle it.