Among the millions of items in the museum’s collection is one that is a harsh reminder of a troubling piece of American history. This saddlebag was used by a rural letter carrier at the turn of the last century in Virginia. While the outside of the saddlebag is innocuous enough, flipping open the mailbags on each side reveal a disturbing reality. One of the bags is marked by hand, “White,” the other “Colored.”
The saddlebag was used by a rural carrier operating out of the Palmyra post office in Fluvanna County, Virginia, most probably by Frank W. Shepherd (1868-1931). Shepherd and James E. Howard were hired as Rural Free Delivery carriers by Palmyra postmaster, George E. Bethel. The Palmyra post office was the thirteenth county to be assigned a rural delivery route(1), and Shepherd and Howard began working their routes on October 22, 1896 at an annual salary of $200 each. Each man’s route covered about 15 miles, with a total of 350 patrons on both routes.
Shepherd worked as a rural carrier on the route until his retirement in 1921. According to the “Annual Report of the Postmaster General,” the Palmyra rural routes were difficult to traverse. “The roads are scarce and bad. In covering their routes the carriers have to take their horses through fields and over farms.”(2) Then, as now, rural carriers were responsible for supplying their own transportation and equipment. Shepherd either already owned this saddlebag or purchased it for carrying mail on his route. Why Shepherd segregated the mailbags is unknown. He may have done it because of personal prejudices, or by the demands of white patrons who did not want their mail to be “mixed” with letters addressed to their African American neighbors.
Prejudice existed throughout an organization as large as the Post Office Department. Although it operated as a desegregated organization in the 1890s, many clung to stereotypes even at the highest levels of the organization. The small saddlebag was large enough for a day’s deliveries, for, as the “Annual Report” noted, Palmyra’s rural office moved very little mail compared to other rural routes(3). In explaining this lack of mail, First Assistant Postmaster General Perry S. Heath wrote that “The country is thinly settled; many of the residents are colored people, not much given to either reading or writing.” He did acknowledge that “the people, those at least who take advantage of the service, are grateful for it and desire its continuance.”(4)
The saddlebag was part of the exhibition, Freedom Just Around the Corner, on display at the museum from February 12, 2015 to February 15, 2016.
- 1) The experimental Rural Free Delivery service began on October 1, 1896 with a handful of post offices in West Virginia.
- 2) The Annual Report of the Postmaster General of the United States, 1897, p. 123.
- 3) Shepherd and Howard carried 10,062 pieces of mail from October 1896 to July 1897. By comparison, in the busiest route (Genesee County, NY) carriers moved 55,803 pieces of mail.
- 4) The Annual Report of the Postmaster General of the United States, 1897, p. 123.
By Nancy A. Pope