Mary Fields, also known as "Stagecoach (Diligence) Mary" or "Black Mary" (c. 1832–1914) was the first black woman employed as a postwoman in the United States, the second woman to work for the United States Postal Service. A free spirit and a woman of guts, she holds this position in the midst of Conquest of the West, driving her diligence through wild and dangerous territories.
Five dollars and a glass of whiskey
Mary Fields was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee around 1832. Nothing is known of her family, and very little from the beginning of its existence. A slave until the abolition of slavery in 1865, Mary worked for a while on a steamer sailing on the Mississippi, the Proud Mary . After the abolition of slavery, Mary worked for a time for Judge Edmund Dunne (English).
Tall and strong, she regularly frequents saloons, likes to smoke cigars and is a whiskey lover. She has a strong character and does not hesitate to throw fists if she needs to defend herself. At the saloons she later frequented in Montana, she likes to lay down a bet:five dollars and a glass of whiskey that she can knock out any cowboy with a single punch.
The Ursuline convent
In 1883, when Edmund Dunne's wife died, Mary Fields took the family's five children to Toledo, Ohio, to entrust them to their aunt, Mother Mary Amadeus, mother superior of a convent of Ursulines, with whom she became friends. The following year, Mother Mary Amadeus was sent to Montana, to St Peter, to establish a school there for young Native American girls. Mary, learning that her friend has caught pneumonia, jumps into a wagon to join her and help her recover.
Mary then resided in St Peter and worked there for the Ursulines, doing carpentry work for them and many other physical tasks such as working in the field or chopping wood. It was she, too, who supplied the convent by picking up provisions at the nearest station or in large neighboring towns. These journeys sometimes require driving at night – when the temperature is cooler – and Mary must cross territories populated by wild beasts, even drunken bandits or cowboys. To defend herself, she travels armed. One night she is attacked by wolves but manages to save her life and her cargo.
Native Americans call Mary"White Crow" (White Crow), saying of her that she has black skin, but acts like a white woman. Her free spirit and her strong character, added to the ambient racism, mean that she is not always well regarded by the local community. A school girl will write about her, in an essay:“she drinks whiskey, and she swears, and she is a republican, which makes her a low, foul creature. (she drinks whisky, she swears, she's a Republican, which makes her an ugly creature).
In 1894, an incident broke out at the mission. A worker attacks Mary in public at one of the local saloons where she hangs out. Complaining of being paid less than her, she accuses her of not deserving her salary, for three reasons in particular:she is black, she is a woman and she is impetuous. The worker addressed the same complaint directly to the bishop on whom the Ursulines depended. A gunfight erupts between the two and the man is injured. The bishop then decides to dismiss Mary, and increase the wounded.
With the help of Mother Mary Amadeus, Mary Fields opens a restaurant in nearby Cascade. Serving everyone without distinction, whether its customers could afford to pay for their meal or not, it went bankrupt after a few months. In 1895, she applied to the United States Postal Service. At over sixty, she was the fastest candidate to harness a team of six horses and she obtained the job of postwoman. She is the second woman, and the first black woman, to work for the United States Postal Service.
Mary works hard, always faithful to the job despite the dangerousness and the difficulty of the work. If the terrain is too snowy for the horses, she carries the mailbags on her back and puts on her snowshoes. His reliability earned him the nickname “stagecoach” (diligence). Generally speaking, Mary gains general respect and becomes a well-liked public figure. Every year, the city closes its schools to celebrate its anniversary. When Montana bans women from saloons, the mayor of Cascade makes an exception for her.
In 1901, at almost seventy, Mary left the postal service. With the help of Mother Mary Amadeus, she opens a new restaurant and laundry. One day, seeing a deadbeat passing by in the street who has not paid his bill, she leaves the saloon to join him and knocks him out with a single punch, at the age of 72. She later told her companions that the satisfaction of the gesture was well worth the bill.
Mary Fields, "Stagecoach Mary" died in 1914 in Great Falls, Montana, at the age of 82.