Mason Barnett Patten, African-American educator, postal clerk, and labor leader, son of Silas and Kitty (Hortense) Patten, was born in Polk County, Texas, in February 1871. In 1899 Patten married Pauline Garza. They had four children: Thelma; Mason Barnett, Jr.; Donovan; and Eliza. Thelma Patten Law later graduated from Howard University Medical School and became one of the first black obstetricians in Texas.
Patten graduated from Prairie View Normal Institute (now Prairie View A&M University) in 1896. While earning his degree, he taught and also served as principal of Huntsville’s public black school. In 1900 he owned his own home in Huntsville and was a respected member of the community. Sometime after the birth of his first child, Thelma, Patten moved the family to Houston and took a job as a railroad postal clerk. The family prospered in Houston, and in 1905 Patten was promoted to class three postal clerk for the Shreveport and Houston railway (presumably the Shreveport, Houston and Gulf Railroad). The family bought a house in Houston’s Fourth Ward, in an area known as Freedman’s Town.
During the 1890s and early 1900s, the position of postal clerk could be hazardous. Most of the mail cars were wooden and were dangerous in the event of a train wreck. As a result, most postal clerks during this time who were required to deliver and pick up mail were black. When steel cars became standard, an attempt was made to exclude blacks from mail clerk jobs. The Railway Mail Association, the industry’s main union, excluded blacks. In May 1913 Patten and several of his fellow black employees with the Shreveport, Houston and Gulf Railroad held a meeting in Houston and were instrumental in forming the Progressive Postal League. This organization sent out a call for similar organizations to meet in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in October 1913. Patten was elected to be a delegate to this meeting, which resulted in the formation of the National Alliance of Postal Employees. Although this organization was founded to represent black postal workers, in 1923 it opened its membership to all postal employees and exists today as the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees. He was a founding member of the Houston chapter of the NAACP in 1918.
Mason Patten died from injuries sustained in a train wreck that occurred near Shreveport, Louisiana, in February 1920. Patten’s family received $1200 in insurance benefits as a result of this crash. It is probably this money that was used to pay for his daughter Thelma’s education at Howard University. Patten’s legacy continues to exist in the form of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees as well as through his descendants.