My Grandpops, Richard Wright, and the Chicago Post Office
Not all history makes headlines, and that’s okay
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…