Jermaine Shirley receives National Letter Carrier of the Year Award for rescuing family from burning building.

On Sept. 10 the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) celebrated everyday workers who performed extraordinary acts over the past year at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.  Honorees were recognized for heroic deeds such as rescuing a 10-year-old boy from a predator, saving a heart attack victim, and pulling a man from a crashed truck before it exploded.

Two of the most prestigious awards, the 2014 Hero of the Year Award and the Legacy Award, were given to African Americans.

Just two weeks into his job as a letter carrier assistant, Jermaine Shirley was on his way to work and stopped when he smelled smoke. It happened to be coming from his own New York apartment building. He checked his unit for something burning, but found nothing. He then gave his neighbors an early morning wake-up, knocking on doors and calling their names from the hallway. Soon, he found himself at the apartment of a neighbor trapped inside with his 11-month-old twin boys. Shirley maneuvered himself on top of a shed below his neighbor’s fire escape and was able to catch the children and bring them to safety.

When Shirley heard he was receiving the 2014 Hero of the Year for saving the family, he was completely surprised. “I was at work and had to sit down,” Shirley told the AFRO. “It was amazing.”

At the NALC awards reception, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel described letter carriers as individuals who don’t just deliver mail, but interact with the community as watchdogs and protectors. “You are the epitome of what I just described,” Engel told Shirley, his constituent in New York’s 16th district.

The NALC Legacy Award celebrated a carrier who served decades in New Jersey. The late Victor Green was honored for his role in the Civil Rights Movement from the 1930s through the 1960s. During this time, laws and practices were designed to keep African Americans from patronizing many hotels and restaurants, making travel very risky for Blacks.

In 1936, Green published the first edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that listed Black- and White-owned hotels and inns. It even listed private residencies that offered shelter for Blacks during their travel. While the first edition covered New York, the publication’s popularity spread quickly and became a national guide by its second edition. By the last issue in the 1960s, it was an international guide cherished by Blacks.

Green was nominated for the award by author and playwright, Calvin Alexander Ramsey. “I have been trying to get him recognized by his peers who are letter carriers for the last 10 years,” Ramsey told the AFRO.

In their decision, the NALC judges noted the timeliness of recognizing Green, as the United States is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. Postal Service has long been one of the largest civilian employers of African Americans in the country. Six days a week, they deliver mail, while entrenching themselves into the lives of residents in the communities they serve.

Christina Sturdivant

Special to the AFRO