Learn more about the First Women Postal Worker in New Bern in this story by Claudia Houston, Historian for the New Bern Historical Society published during March, 2021, Women's History Month.
It is Women’s History month and we have a delightful story to tell that also involves a “New Bern First”. Ms. Linda Jones and Ms. Barbara Saunders contacted me to tell me the story of their sister, Ernestine Simmons Pritchett, who made history here in New Bern. Here is her story:
On July 7, 2007 there was an article in the New Bern Sun Journal regarding Ernestine Pritchett who earned an award from the US postal service for 26 years of service. What that award does not tell-Ernestine was the first woman postal worker in New Bern! She was also Black, so that made her the first Black woman postal worker as well. Pritchett, who started in 1966 stated in this newspaper article, “At first I felt funny because I was the only black,” Pritchett said. I was amongst a bunch of Whites. It was me being afraid to be mixed but I got over that and most of the men were nice and gave me good advice on how to do the job”.
Pritchett was born in New Bern but went to New York to find work in a factory before finishing high school. Her mother died in 1965 and as the oldest, she came home to take care of her five siblings. The youngest was eight at the time. She did housework to make money but she only earned $5 to $20 a week. She heard that the postal test was open to anyone because the Postal service was looking to hire people from minority groups. At that time, women were the minority. A few days later, Ralph Stanley, the postmaster at the West New Bern post office on Neuse Boulevard gave her a job as a substitute clerk and carrier. She started working there on March 16, 1966. She also spent time working at the Middle Street Branch. The $2.67 hourly pay was an increase from the $15-$20 a week she earned doing housework, but the work was harder, too. “I had to go in as early as 5:30 in the morning to dump parcels” Pickett said. I had to be able to lift 70 pounds and pick up the big bags of mail by hand. Now, all you have to do is push a switch” said Pritchett.
As a substitute, she had to work on holidays and weekends when regular employees took time off. She delivered mail on a bicycle in bad weather because she couldn’t drive. “I was out there like a duck. I’d be a mess from trudging in that rain. Addresses would wash off the envelopes, but the mail must go, so I did.” After about 5 years of substitute work, Pritchett became a regular employee. “We had a few men not happy that we made the same pay as them, so a few of them tried to dump the duty work on us.”, she said. She started driving a mail truck so she had to get a license. She said it took her more than 30 minutes to park a mail truck the first time she tried. Pritchett said the people she delivered to were not always nice. Some of the people were nasty in the street she said. “A lot of people would point out that I was a black mail woman and they would try to get me to give them their mail even though they were not home. I could not do that”.
Finally, in the 1970’s other women were hired. Ernestine became a coworker and friend to Elizabeth Lunaas. Elizabeth worked with Ernestine for over 15 years. Lunaas retired from the West New Bern post office in 1989. Ernestine moved to a new post office on Glenburnie Road. She retired from that branch on June 26, 1992.
Ernestine Simmons Pritchett died on October 280, 2020 at the age of 88. Her sisters spoke about how special she was-how she raised them and sent them to school. They remembered helping her memorize addresses. She was a religious woman and Church going women did not wear pants at the time, but it was a necessity while riding a bicycle.