How plantation owner corresponded with his slaves

“Illiteracy… compromised but did not preclude participation in America’s [antebellum] postal network.

“A fascinating correspondence between absentee slaveholder William S. Pettigrew and the enslaved foremen on his two North Carolina plantations illustrates this crucial point nicely. During an an extended convalescence at Healing Springs in Virginia, Pettigrew sought to manage his business affairs by corresponding with Moses and Henry, the two illiterate overseers, relying upon a white intermediary.

” ‘Thinking you would be glad to hear from me,’ Pettigrew wrote to Moses in 1856, ”I have concluded to write you a few lines and will enclose them to Mr. White who will read them to you.’ Though Malica J. White’s own skills were quite rough, he dutifully transcribed the replies of three different slaves, and a detailed correspondence ensued, dealing with countless details of crop production, workplace discipline, and plantation life. Pettigrew always addressed Moses and Henry directly, and they responded in kind. Upon receiving their replies, Pettigrew offered paternalistic congratulations to Moses for his ‘succe[ss] as a letter-writer,’ proudly showed the letter to a friend, and instructed Moses to ‘writ[e] more frequently,’ de-emphasizing White’s mediation’ ….”

— From “The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America” by David M. Henkin (2008)


‘You never write!’…. ‘Well, I’m from North Carolina’

“In 1790 the postal system transmitted just under 300,000 letters, or roughly one letter per year for every 10 inhabitants of the United States, excluding Indians and slaves. … By 1856 the comparable total had increased to around 130 million, or 5.3 letters per free person per year.

“No less notable was the regional variation. In 1856, in North Carolina, the average inhabitant sent 1.5 letters per year; in Indiana, 3; in Louisiana, 5.5; in Massachusetts, 10…. On average, urban Americans wrote between 5 and 20 times as many letters as rural Americans….”

— From “Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse” by Richard R. John (2009)


In black neighborhoods, carriers deliver more than mail

” ‘Here comes Uncle Sam!’ is what I used to hear on my mail route in west Durham. Mostly I heard this from older African Americans — along with the usual jokes about bills, junk mail and checks. Almost one-fifth of my customers received Social Security checks, and many of them relied on me to deliver their medications, including on Saturdays.

“What I didn’t fully appreciate until later was the reassurance they got from seeing their letter carrier and the connection I represented to the Postal Service and the federal government. For them, the post office was also quite likely a place where a relative had found employment — enabling a middle-class lifestyle, homeownership and college tuition for the kids.”

— From “What we’ll lose if we lose the post office” by Philip F. Rubio in the Washington Post (July 29) 

The Postal Service’s list of proposed closings includes 20 locations in North Carolina, from Raleigh and New Bern to the Appalachian Trail.