Before there was home mail delivery, slaves often carried letters to and from U.S. post offices or directly to recipients themselves.
Now the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum is recalling that piece of postal history in a new exhibit opening Thursday. "Freedom Just Around the Corner: Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights" is the museum's first exhibit devoted entirely to African-American history.
The new exhibit features letters carried by enslaved Americans and mail sent by and to leaders of the civil rights movement.
One letter carried by a slave named Susan in 1850 contains a message about how Susan should be sold to a slave dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Curators say Susan probably wasn't aware the letter she carried to a post office contained arrangements for her to be sold.
The exhibit goes further, to explore the role that falling postal rates played in abolishing slavery -- and the opposition to abolition in the south, where the Ku Klux Klan actually cancelled their own stamps.
It also touches on the role of the Post Office as a major employer during the Civil Rights era, and one that reflected the opportunity and the racial tensions of society.
“This exhibit reflects tremendous struggles and advancements of African Americans during some of our nation’s most troubling times,” said Allen Kane, director of the museum. “The use of stamps and mail played an important role in this period of American history.”
“One of the real pleasures in curating this exhibition was being able to draw on the Postmasters General Collection of original U.S. stamp artwork,” said Daniel Piazza, curator of the exhibit. “The Black Heritage series artwork on display is just stunning.”
The exhibit will be open through the beginning of next year.