First African-American mail carrier

Springfield mail carriers in 1898: Charles Ellis is No. 10, center of second row (Sangamon Valley Collection)

When Charles Ellis Sr. was appointed a Springfield mail carrier in 1890 – the first African-American to hold the job – his predecessor refused to show him the route, and the Illinois State Register erupted with a racist personal attack on Ellis.

Ellis (1860?-1934), along with most other black voters in the 19th century, was a Republican. In July 1890, Springfield had just gotten a new postmaster, James C. Conkling (1816-99), who was appointed by the Republican administration of Benjamin Harrison. Harrison had defeated Democrat Grover Cleveland for the presidency in November 1898.

The jobs of both postmaster and mail carrier were patronage positions at the time, and Conkling went about replacing Democratic-connected carriers with GOP loyalists. Ellis’s seems to have been the only controversial appointment.

The Illinois State Journal, which supported the Republican Party, reported Ellis’s appointment in its July 4 edition. Conkling, the paper said, “confirmed the rumor that Ed DeFrates would be succeeded on the carrier force by Charles Ellis, colored.” The newspaper went on:

DeFrates … was allowed ten days on pay during which time it was understood that he would show his successor the route. He said he would do this after the ten days had expired, which was equivalent to refusing to do it. The Postmaster insisted that in all fairness to a new man he should commence at once to show him the route. This DeFrates declined to do, gruffly refusing to extend even ordinary courtesy to the colored man who had been chosen as his successor, and saying that he would hang up his pouch before he would do it. Then the Postmaster suspended him.

Ellis was not in the least disturbed by this refusal and at once started over the route himself, and it is probable that in two or three days he will know it better than ever DeFrates did. …

The Register, the Democrats’ mouthpiece in Springfield, had scooped its rival July 3 with an article that denounced both Conkling (a “silver-haired old sinner”) and, in openly racist fashion, Ellis. Conkling, the Register said, had told “that fine and efficient carrier, Ed DeFrates,” that he was to be laid off.

Conkling told DeFrates, The Register said, “that he had selected as his successor a gentleman whose superior efficiency and qualifications for the place the public would at once recognize, Mr. Charles Ellis, better known as ‘Big-Mouth Charlie,’ a polished c—n (expurgation by SangamonLink) of unquestioned African blood. It is thus that the efficiency of the postal service in this city is being improved(?).”

DeFrates apparently was among those embarrassed by the Register’s vitriol. Maybe the Register was too, because the newspaper published a followup article the morning of July 4 in which DeFrates claimed he had been willing to train Ellis, just not during his last 10 days on the job, when DeFrates was still responsible for the mail on his route.

DeFrates said in the followup story that he would have been willing to instruct Ellis once his carrier term was over. Conkling first agreed with that plan, but then changed his mind.  DeFrates resigned, he said, not because Ellis was African-American, but because Conkling broke his promise. According to the story:

All the democratic carriers have treated the postmaster with courtesy, and they have cheerfully instructed their successors. Mr. DeFrates would have done the same had the postmaster kept his word with him. The treatment of the postmaster by the democratic carriers is in marked contrast to the way a majority of the republican carriers treated the democratic postmaster four years ago.

In general, the Register was the more racist of Springfield’s two major newspapers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the paper may have had an extra motive for its attacks on Conkling and Ellis: the Democratic postmaster Conkling replaced was Henry W. Clendenin (1837-1927), the Register’s editor and co-owner.

Post office employees were put under civil service protection before Cleveland, back in the presidency, nominated Redick Ridgely as Springfield’s next postmaster in 1894. As a result, Charles Ellis remained a mail carrier until about 1905, according to Springfield city directories. His fellow carriers elected him a trustee of the local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers in 1901.

Following his postal career, city directories indicate Ellis worked as a teamster and sold real estate. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

During Springfield’s 1908 race riot, according to his daughter Ruth, Charles Ellis defended his home from white mobs by standing on his porch holding a ceremonial sword he owned as a member of the Knights of Pythias.

Ruth Ellis

Charles Ellis’s daughter, Ruth Ellis (1899-2000), was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 2009.

“An African-American entrepreneur and open lesbian at a time when few people were comfortable revealing their sexual orientation, Ruth Ellis lived her long life on her own terms,” the Hall of Fame entry reads. Her life is the subject of a 1999 film, Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100.

Charles Ellis Sr. was accepting of his daughter’s sexual orientation, his daughter said in the film.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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