Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights

Segregation - Postal

With the U.S. Army no longer suppressing the Klan and enforcing the political rights of freedmen, southern states introduced racial segregation and passed laws that made it difficult for black men to vote. Lynchings peaked between 1890 and 1910, and anti-lynching legislation became a perennial concern of new civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Throughout this period, the post office and the military were the nation’s largest employers, and they reflected the racial problems of the larger society.

Mrs. Frazer Baker and Children, c. 1899

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Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Dr. Fosetina Baker On The Lynching Of Frazer Baker

Dr. Fosetina W. Baker: My name is Dr. Fosetina W. Baker, the grandniece of the late Frazer B. Baker, an appointed Postmaster in Lake City, South Carolina. This appointment was made by the late President William H. McKinley, testing segregation in the southern states. And I have been researching this topic for some decades. I am excited to be here today to share some brief points on the tragedy that occurred in Lake City, South Carolina on February 22, 1898. After the lynching of Uncle Frazer and his infant daughter Julia, the Washington Post reported that the general postmaster’s office received a letter where Uncle Frazer was asking for protection. My aunt and the five children were hidden in the home of neighbors, and they were unable to seek medical attention because they were afraid, and it took about three days before the family was able to seek medical attention. There was no justice served for the family. My aunt and the five children were railroaded to Boston, and they lived an impoverished life where all of the children preceded Aunt Lavinia, the mother of the five children. In 1942 she returned to her original hometown in Florence, South Carolina. So those are the points that I would like to share, and it leaves a very painful feeling in my soul.

Account of the Frazer B. Baker lynching trial, 1899

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President William McKinley appointed hundreds of African American postmasters, including Frazer B. Baker of Lake City, South Carolina. Local whites burned the post office to force Baker to resign; when he did not, they burned his house and shot his family as they escaped. Because Baker was a U.S. government employee, his murder led to a federal trial. None of the accused were convicted, but the incident brought national attention to the lynching problem.

Loan from Avery Research Center, College of Charleston

Curator Lynn Heidelbaugh on the lynching of Frazer Baker

Lynn Heidelbaugh: I’m Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator with the National Postal Museum. The photograph on this book shows Lavinia Baker recuperating in a hospital bed. The gunshot that wounded Lavinia’s arm had also killed her two-year-old daughter Julia as she carried the child from their burning home on the night of February 22, 1898. A lynch mob had set fire to the building that was both the Bakers’ home and the post office for Lake City, South Carolina. Lavinia’s husband, Frazer Baker, was shot and killed that night. Frazer had recently become the postmaster for the town, and he was the first African American to hold that job in the predominately white community. What’s extraordinary about Postmaster Baker’s case is that it actually went to trial.  This was practically unheard of at the time. Most lynchings and attacks were not being prosecuted. The public was outraged at the brutal attack on an innocent family, and the case gained political traction because Frazer Baker was a postmaster working for the federal government. Frazer’s widow Lavinia gave testimony at the federal district court in Charleston, South Carolina. Her words are recorded in this book along with the eyewitness accounts of her five surviving children. The pamphlet was written and published with the express intent to fund raise to help the Baker family. They did receive support, but the Baker case never got a verdict. Ultimately the judge declared a mistrial when the all-white jury became deadlocked.

Postal Inspection Service investigation card, 1924

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On July 8, 1924, Ku Klux Klan members burned a cross to terrorize a camp for black Boy Scouts outside Philadelphia. U.S. Postal Inspectors investigated reports that an assistant postmaster and a clerk from the Ardmore, Pennsylvania post office were involved.

Blackdom, New Mexico post office cash book, c. 1913

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Faced with segregation and discrimination in the east, many African Americans chose to establish their own towns in the west. Some, like Blackdom, grew large enough to support post offices that offered money orders and postal savings accounts, functioning as de facto banks. Cash books from these post offices contain the community’s economic history.

Curator Lynn Heidelbaugh on the Blackdom Cash Book

Lynn Heidelbaugh: I’m Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator with the National Postal Museum. The date on this book cover that you can see is April 1, 1913. That’s when the money order service was first offered at the post office in Blackdom, New Mexico. Blackdom was a still new town then, and its first settlers had started to arrive around 1908. The community was planned by and for African American homesteaders. They had left the south in hopes of gaining land ownership and other rights that were being denied under Jim Crow laws. Blackdom’s growing population called for an official post office, and their petition was approved in 1912. A post office could be a source of civic pride because it conveyed an extra sense of legitimacy to have this federal agency established in a community. Of course, having a local post office was also convenient. It meant that you could communicate to relatives back home and you could get businesses up and running. The history of the Blackdom post office mirrored the fortunes of the town. All three of the town’s postmasters used this account book. It was important to the postmasters because the number of money orders issued factored into their commissions and salaries. Postmaster Bessie Malone kept the ledger until the post office closed in 1919. The residents had begun to abandon the town. Water resources were limited, and the main cash crop suffered from prolonged droughts and pest problems. Blackdom had become a ghost town by the late 1920s. This account book was turned over to the nearest post office in Dexter, New Mexico, where it stayed until donated to the museum in 2012.

Segregated Rural Free Delivery saddlebag, c. 1896

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Palmyra, Virginia became a Rural Free Delivery post office on October 22, 1896, one of the first in the nation to deliver mail to farm families. This mailbag with separate compartments for “white” and “colored” mail was not required by federal policy but was procured by the carrier to satisfy either his own preferences or those of his customers.

Segregated saddlebag with the work Colored written on the inside flap
Segregated saddlebag with the work White written on the inside flap
Curator Daniel Piazza on the segregated saddlebag

Dan Piazza: My name is Dan Piazza. I’m the National Postal Museum’s chief curator of philately, as well as the curator of the Freedom Just Around the Corner exhibit, and we are looking at a segregated saddlebag used by a mail carrier in Virginia around the turn of the twentieth century. This item has been in the museum’s collection since 1990, when we purchased it at an estate sale of the contents of Boyd Tavern in Albemarle County, Virginia. The Tavern was a rural post office for more than a century, and this mailbag with separate compartments for white and colored mail was most likely used by Frank W. Shepherd, who was the letter carrier on Rural Route No. 1 from Palmyra, Virginia, from 1896 until 1921. So, what does all that mean? Well, before the 1890s, home mail delivery was restricted to the cities and larger towns. Rural folks had to travel to the post office in order to send a letter or pick up their mail. Then in 1896, Fluvanna and Albemarle counties in central Virginia became one of the first parts of the country where mail was delivered to and picked up directly from farms in a service known as Rural Free Delivery, or RFD, which continues to this day. Postal regulations of the time did not call for white and black people’s mail to be handled separately. Instead, this saddlebag speaks to the persistence of racism and segregation in spite of government policies to the contrary. RFD carriers supplied their own equipment, which opened the door for them to indulge their own prejudices – or those of their customers. After Frank Shepherd retired in 1921, his mailbag probably found its way to his relatives at Boyd Tavern, where it possibly saw additional postal use. This exhibit marks the first time we have ever displayed it.

Conservator Linda Edquist on the segregated saddlebag

Linda Edquist: My name is Linda Edquist. I’m the conservator here at the National Postal Museum. This leather saddlebag-style mailbag dates from the late 1890s and it’s a rather fancy mailbag in that it was made with three colors of leather with ornamental details on both the two pouches and the leather, hourglass-shaped strap that connects the bags. The entire object measures forty-one inches in length. The stitching is machine-stitched, not by hand. The object was well-used during its time and shows a great deal of wear to the leather and the leather elements. The leather is cracked overall with areas of loss, especially along the bridge and the red trim on the pouches and is very stiff, making manipulating the object for conservation treatment and exhibit display difficult. There are tears, and the sewn leather on the bridge section has lost much of the stitching holding it together. The buckle straps are missing, though the buckle itself is intact and the decorative straps are also missing the stitching attaching them to the bag. The saddlebag was treated before going on exhibition by an objects conservator. The conservator stabilized the mailbag so that it could be safely put on exhibit without causing any further damage to the artifact. We do not attempt to restore the piece to its original appearance, referred to as restoration. Much of the damage apparent in the artifact is really part of its history. It was used for many years and the curators and conservators consider this an important part of the story the piece has to share with you. The mailbag was vacuumed to remove the surface dust and debris. The iron alloy buckle was lightly cleaned with fine steel wool and coated to protect it from any further oxidation with a refined, microcrystalline wax often referred to by its brand name, Renaissance Wax. Then an exhibit mountmaker, a person who specializes in creating various types of mounts used for artifacts on display, created a special mount that supports the fragile bridge area of the saddlebag as well as supporting the pouches from underneath so as not to put any additional pressure on the bridge leather. When conservators and mount makers do their jobs it usually goes unnoticed by the visitor. They are the behind the scene professionals that want to be sure the artifacts they are asked to care for will be around in the future but also that the visitor today can enjoy them. Next time you are at an exhibit that has three-dimensional artifacts, look a little closer and see if you can see some of the care that went into putting them on display for you to enjoy.

Travelers’ Green Book International Edition, 1966-67 edition

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Widespread discrimination and the prevalence of Jim Crow laws in the south made it difficult for African Americans to travel freely. Harlem, New York letter carrier Victor H. Green and his wife Alma published the Green Book from 1936 to 1966 to guide black travelers to hotels, restaurants, and other establishments that would serve them. Much of his information was supplied by fellow postal workers around the country.

Loan from Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

Mrs. Gloria Brown on traveling before the Civil Rights Bill

Gloria Brown: My name is Gloria Brown, and I’d like to tell you some of the experiences I had as a military wife of a black officer traveling across the country before the Civil Rights Bill was signed. Along the way, I tried to have my clothes washed at a Laundromat, and before I could get to the door they told me they didn’t take colored clothes. We had trouble finding a place to stay. Most of the hotels would not accept blacks at that time; they just told us they didn’t have any room. The Washington Post published an article about a booklet that was put out that told blacks where they could stay. Some of the places were places that I would not want my family to go. One hotel in New Mexico, the manager had been in the Navy and I think he took pity on us and he let us stay, but he kind of let us know that he was doing us a favor. We did have a tent-trailer that we used. We would park in the woods and he’d sleep outside, and at the time we had two children and so we had a station wagon that had a sedan in the front, a sedan seat in the front. So one child slept in the front and I slept on the back on a mattress with the other child. Sometimes it rained, and so we just drove all night because he couldn’t sleep out in the, in the rain. I couldn’t understand why my husband, who had been in combat, could not find a decent place to stay.