First African American Postmasters in Kentucky(start date: 1885 - end date: 1905)
Written by Reinette F. Jones, October 16, 2023.
John Starks was named the first African American postmaster in Kentucky in 1889. Starks died from tuberculosis one week after receiving his commission. His appointment was a late chapter in the long history of postal service in Kentucky. That history began in 1792 when Kentucky became the first state west of the Allegheny Mountains to have post offices and postmasters. The postmaster is the person selected to manage the post office.
The Danville Post Office opened on August 20, 1792, and it was the first government sanctioned postal services in Kentucky. Thomas Barbee was the appointed postmaster, and he is recognized as the first postmaster in Kentucky. The second post office opened in Harrodsburgh (Harrodsburg) on June 11, 1794, with Philip Bush as the postmaster. This event was followed by post offices in Bairdstown (Bardstown), Frankfort, Lexington, and Washington, all opened on October 1, 1794. The post office in Bourbontown (Paris) opened on January 1, 1795, and the one in Louisville opened on October 1, 1795. The Washington (KY) Post Office was the first distribution point for mail delivered between Kentucky and the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin).
The history of African American postmasters in Kentucky and other states occurred much later and has not been fully documented. The history is also filled with turbulence. When African Americans were named postmasters, they faced the risk of being assaulted, arrested, and/or killed. In 1897, the African American postmaster in Hogansville, GA was shot. On February 22, 1898, in Lake City, SC, the African American postmaster was killed. His name was Frazier Baker, and both he and his infant daughter Julia were shot to death in their home. Their bodies were incinerated when the house was set on fire. Baker's wife and other five children were fired upon as they made their escape. Some suffered gunshot wounds. In Humphrey, Arkansas, there was an African American postmaster when the post office was blown up with dynamite in 1904.
There was opposition voiced in newspapers toward the idea of African American postmasters in the United States, especially in the South. There were claims that African American postmasters were unqualified or that they were involved in illegal activity. It took steadfast determination for there to be any African American postmasters in the United States and postmasters in Kentucky are included in this history.
Presented below are the names and sources that reference the earliest African American postmasters in Kentucky up to the year 1905. Their names can also be found in the Record of Appointments of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971: Kentucky. The challenge with this source is that there is no indication of the race of each postmaster. To help address this challenge, other sources such as newspapers and census records have been used to further determine the identities of those listed below.
1885 Wash Blackburn
In 1885, Democrat Wash Blackburn was being considered as postmaster for Henderson, KY.
1889 John D. Starks
In 1889, U.S. President Willian Henry Harrison appointed Republican John D. Starks the postmaster at Brandenburg, KY. Starks' appointment was through the influence of Ohio County statesman Charley Pendleton. Kentucky Republicans were not in favor of Starks' nomination as postmaster, and the Democrats were keeping quiet about it while promoting Miss Lida Powell for the position. The appointment of Starks was held. The commission ceremony took place in 1890, but Starks was too sick to attend. A week later, John D. Starks died of consumption (tuberculosis). He is considered the first African American postmaster in Kentucky.
1896 C. C. Chadwell
In 1896, it was announced in the newspapers that C. C. Chadwell was to become the postmaster of the Chadwell Post Office in Madison County, KY. The post office was going to be in C. C. Chadwell's store on Drowning Creek. Unfortunately, the announcement in the newspapers was made before the final decision was determined. Or, perhaps the decision was reversed once it had been publicized. Either way, a couple of weeks after the initial announcement, there was another newspaper article stating that C. C. Chadwell had not been commissioned a postmaster and the post office would not be established in Chadwell, KY.
1900 George W. Combs
In 1900, George W. Combs was appointed postmaster of the newly established Zion Hill Post Office in Scott County, KY.
1905 Emanuel Smith
On June 5, 1905, Emanuel Smith was appointed postmaster at Altamont, KY, in Laurel County. His name is listed in the Record of Appointment of Postmasters. Emanuel Smith was born in Kentucky around 1870 and was the husband of Jennie Smith. The couple had a daughter, Maude Smith. Congressman Don C. Edwards (Republican) made the appointment of Emanuel Smith to postmaster in Altamont. Democrats tried to drum up the charge that Representative Edwards had chosen a Negro for postmaster over a widowed white woman.
1940 Laura Ray Young
Mrs. Laura Ray Young was appointed postmaster at Lincoln Ridge, KY, in 1940. She has often been referred to as the first African American postmaster in Kentucky and the second woman postmaster in the United States. With more recent research, this was found not to be true. As shown above, there were earlier African American postmasters in Kentucky. There were also earlier African American women postmasters in the United States.
James Mason was the first African American postmaster in the U. S. He was appointed to the post office in Sunny Side, Arkansas in 1867. Minnie M. Cox, of Indianola, MS, was the first African American woman postmaster in the U. S., from 1891-1893. Jenny Fletcher, wife of Kentuckian Z. T. Fletcher served as postmaster in Nicodemus, KS, from 1889-1894. More names may be discovered as the research of African American postmasters continues.
Price, William Jennings. “Danville was the first post office established in Kentucky and in the territory beyond the Alleghenies,” The Filson Club History Quarterly, v.14, no.4, October 1940, pp.191-204. Online .pdf @ https://filsonhistorical.org/.../14-4-2_Danville-Was-the....
The Hoganville, GA, Negro postmaster was shot in 1897, see "Two of the most prominent business men ...," The Courier-Journal, 09/20/1897, front page; "Another of Mr. Hanna's negro postmasters ...," The Daily Messenger, 02/23/1898, p.4; "Stand firm at Lake City," The Sunday Leader, 05/28/1899, p.4; "White mob attacks black postmaster and family in South Carolina lynching," an Equal Justice Initiative (eji) webpage; Black Postmaster in a White Town: the lynching of Frazier Baker and his daughter by Fostenia W. Baker.
"There is such a squabble among white Democrats ...," Tri-Weekly Messenger, 08/15/1885, p.2; "Brandenburg: the Republicans are making a terrible howl ...," The Breckenridge News, 11/20/1889, front page; "Colored postmaster dead," Owensboro Daily Messenger, 09/18/1890, front page; "C. C. Chadwell," The Evening Bulletin, 03/03/1896, p.3; "There is many a slip," The Climax, 03/18/1896, p.3; "New Kentucky post office," Daily Public Ledger, 09/18/1900, p.2; "Inspector found no clew [clue]," Messenger-Inquirer, 03/16/1904, p.2; "Miserable trick," Lexington Leader, 11/02/1906, p.4; “Record of Appointments of Postmasters, 1832-September 30, 1971: Kentucky,” National Archives Microfilm Publications,#M841 published by the National Archives in Washington, D.C., 1973 (Available full text in Ancestry).
"1st Negro postmaster, Mrs. W. M. Young dies," The Courier-Journal, 10/04/1962, Section 1, p.26.
For the names of the first African American postmasters in the United States see Earliest known African American Figures in Postal History, a Smithsonian webpage. The webpage does not have any information about African American postmasters in Kentucky.