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#52 Ancestors – Family Legend: The Longest Lunchbreak

My father, known as Herbie Williams (Herbert R. Williams), would say, when I asked how he went from working as a Postal “Letter Carrier” to work for the U. S. Customs Service, at the U. S. Custom House (now called the “Alexander Hamilton U. S. Custom House”), in Lower Manhattan (New York), that one of the men on the “stamping desk” went to lunch and he (my father) was asked to fill in. Then he would add, “That was the longest lunchbreak he ever had!” Then he would say it was “___ years long” (fill in the appropriate number of years depending on when he was asked).

My father retired from “Customs” after 42 years of service. In that time, he went from the stamping desk as a clerk, to being a “Deputy Collector” and “Import Specialist.” Upon retirement, he was awarded the Gallatin Award from the U. S. Treasury Department. His job vacancy notice indicated that the successful applicant needed to have a law degree. Not bad for a man who had only completed the ninth grade. I would love to continue writing about my father, how really smart he was, how he was a walking calculator and what an amazing career he had, or the wonderful person he was, but that’s not the story I want to share in this blog. It’s that “longest lunchbreak” I want to write about.

Herbie and Margaret (Lee) Williams at his retirement luncheon, 1972

Frankly, it never occurred to me to question my father’s account of his rise from Letter Carrier to Deputy Collector and Import Specialist. Since he died in 1982, I no longer have the opportunity to ask questions. However, recently, I have had occasion to go through some old documents of my father’s. Some of these documents go back to his young adult years, back to the time when he was working for the Post Office, before going to Customs. In reading those documents, I discovered that his “Lunchbreak” story didn’t occur exactly the way he had told it.

As part of the background to this story, I must explain that he was originally from Jersey City, New Jersey. In May 1929, while still in his twenties, he was a co-founder and Vice President of the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey. I knew he had been active politically as a young man, but I did not realize just how active. Moreover, I did not know how well he understood how to leverage that position to his advantage.

Certificate of Incorporation for the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey

In August 1929, a letter was written by the Republican Association president, C. Bion Jones, on behalf of my father and Raymond Alleyne, another young man working at the same postal station (located in the U.S. Custom House), to Senator Walter Edge, from New Jersey. In it, Mr. Jones indicates that my father and Mr. Alleyne were two of a group of young men, all members of the Hudson County Republican Association, who were experiencing “unfairness” by the Post Office Superintendent, F. A. Kaemffe. Mr. Jones was asking Senator Edge to intervene in the matter. I assume it was this “unfairness” that prompted my father’s interest in moving to the Customs Service.

In October (illegible) 1929, there was a draft letter to Colonel Arthur Fran, Comptroller of Customs, drawn up by my father, on his own behalf, but the intended signatory was not indicated. In it, he noted that he desired to transfer to Customs. He stated that the clerical pool in the Customs Service was “shorthanded.” He explained that he had taken the general clerical test in April and had made a formal application. He said that those chosen were generally chosen from those who had completed such steps. He also wanted the Colonel to know that he was “an active Republican and was V. President of one of our militant Rep. organizations.” (Did he say “militant?” I never heard that before!) As noted, he did not indicate whose signature was intended for this, possibly Mr. Bion Jones, the association president.

In November 1929, he wrote a letter to Bion Jones. In it, he noted that he had not heard anything regarding his application for transfer. I mentioned that he had taken the clerical test in April” and that, providing that I pass this and have the right person in back of me will entitle me to a clerk’s position in the Customs Service quicker than a transfer as there must be a vacancy at the time of my recommendation by the Coll of Cust and since to fulfill the necessary papers for transferring me would take 3 months and the help being so short handed they cannot hold a position open that long, so until I receive my report I guess the matter will have to stand. However, he did not let it rest.

In May 1930, my father wrote to Congressman Fred Hartley. Hartley was apparently someone with whom he had some relationship, since he opened his letter saying, It has been some time since you have heard from me for which I wish to apologize but knowing how busy you have been with the tariff bill, I did not think you would have time to bother with such small matters as reading letters from me. But as you have about finished with the tariff bill, I wish you would look into the enclosed matter as it has been hanging free (?) for some time and the only results are a big promise so knowing you are one for the party, I know you will do your best to get me more than a promise.

Letter from Herbie Williams to Congressman Fred Hartley, Jr.

About ten days later, my father wrote Bion Jones, saying that, “Some time ago, I filed an application for transfer from the Post office Department to the Customs Service as a clerk. It has been some time since I have received any word as to whether such a feat could be accomplished and I feel as though something should have been done by this time.”

Letter to C. Bion Jones from Herbie Williams

On 6 June, Congressman Hartley responded to my father saying that he had heard from the Collector of Customs. The letter was attached. In it the Collector indicated there were still no vacancies but would contact the Congressman as soon as an opening became available. Congressman Hartley assured my father that he would “continue to follow this case, and do everything possible to obtain a transfer” for him.

Letter from Congressman Fred Hartley, Jr., to Herbie Williams

There is another letter, that seems to be from the same time period, but was not dated. It was written from my father to the “Hon. Robt. S. O. Lawson, Pres Puretan Repu A,” In the letter, my father indicated that he had written to the Hon. Ham. F. Kean, the Hon. Philip Eltinger, Collector of Customs, Col. Arthur Fran, comptroller of Customs and Judge Thos H. Brown and all I can get is as soon as an opportunity of an opening comes, I will get 1st chance. This is all I received for an answer for two years although since then I have even passed their 1st grade examination which entitles me to 1st preference but, I am waiting. So, hoping you can get me some sort of answer as to whether it can be accomplished.

Letter from Herbie Williams to Robert Lawson

That was the last of the letters preserved  regarding this matter. However, another document compiled around 1939, which listed his work and education history, noted that he got a long-awaited birthday gift. On 10 August 1930, his birthday, he reported to the Post Office for the last time. On 11 August 1930, he reported for work with the Customs Service as a clerk on the Stamping desk, thus beginning his forty-two-year career in Customs.

Part of a job history report for Herbie Williams

So, that cute story about how he filled in for someone but never left, was really a hard-fought political strategy to advocate for himself and his future. It was quite amazing and rewarding to read about how he used his political acumen and leveraged his many contacts to finally land the job of his dreams. He loved his work with Customs. I don’t think there was ever a day that he didn’t look forward to going to work. On retirement, he was immensely proud of all that he had accomplished – so  were my mother and I.

4 thoughts on “#52 Ancestors – Family Legend: The Longest Lunchbreak

  1. That was an inspiring story! Glad your father was able to get a great job during the depression. My dad was able to work his way up in the world with a 9th grade education. Now those positions require college degrees. I find that rather sad.

    1. I agree. I think about that. They would have not been able to accomplish so much. I wonder if removing those paths has simply demoralized some who might have been able to find a path but now feel trapped.

  2. How wonderful that you were able to piece together the real story behind his transfer to the customs office. Where did you find the letters your father wrote? National Archives?

    On another matter, I was wondering if you have any connection to Rev. Peter Williams, Jr. of New York, who was a founder of the Freedom’s Journal newspaper in 1827. I’m working on a blog post about it.

    1. Thanks. The letters were in a box in the basement.

      Sorry no connection to Rev Peter. Sounds interesting.

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