BY BRANDON BRAXTON, Special to the Post
Chances are those who have lived in Cape Charles in the last four decades have run into Ernest Smith Jr., affectionately known as “Mr. Junnie” to those have grown to know him.
A career that spanned over 38 years with the United States Postal Service wrapped up last week and with it came the swan song of one of the more recognizable faces in the town’s history.
Smith was born Jan.12, 1963, to Obelia and Ernest Smith. The youngest of three, he grew up in the Cheriton crossroads area.
After graduating from Northampton High School in 1981, followed by completion of electronics school in 1983, the postal service was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I wanted to work in electronics,” Smith said. “I was applying to different jobs.”
John Wright, Smith’s stepfather after his mother remarried in 1981, suggested he take the test for the post office.
Although he would go on to take the test, Smith never intended on taking the job. That is until he received his scores back.
“I had the highest score out of 400 people,” he said.
After thinking on it, he accepted the offer to work for the Cape Charles office — and made history.
He became only the second African American ever to work for the post office on the Eastern Shore and was the first ever African-American male to do so.
He was initially met with an icy reaction. People responded to him by calling him names and locking their doors as he approached houses.
He even encountered a cold welcome from fellow coworkers, he said. He struggled early, questioning if he made the right decision. But encouragement from people in town kept him moving forward.
His solution? Just being himself. By showing everyone the genuine person he was, he gained respect from those who initially shunned him.
And once they opened their arms to him, it was the personal relationships he cultivated that truly made Smith a staple of the town.
“That’s the problem with society,” he says. “We don’t know each other.”
Over the years, Smith has had an impact on so many people in the town of Cape Charles and beyond.
Some even bought houses in the town based on his glowing praise of it. He saw himself as more than a mail carrier, taking it upon himself to look out for the elderly, as well.
He recounted a time when he found one of his customers suffering a stroke. Without a second thought, he called 911 and got her the help she needed. For this act, he was awarded the Postal Hero Award.
“It’s not about me,” he said about receiving the award. “It’s about what I can do to help someone else.”
In 2022, Mr. Junnie earned a rare award in the postal service: The Million Mile Award. The award presented to letter carriers that have driven “one million miles or have gone 30 years without a preventable incident.”
His love for the youth — who he often refers to our future — might be what shines the brightest.
His ability to stop and have relatable conversations with kids is what set him apart. Smith goes out of his way to encourage and build relationships with them.
In one instance, he purchased a pair of school sneakers so a kid could go to school with confidence. In another instance, Smith challenged a student to bring his grades up, offering $5 for each “A” received.
It’s that need to do more for the kids that led Smith to run for the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, and he won the election.
His goal is to visit schools and get a firsthand look at the problems troubling the school systems.
“I want to let them know that they can make it,” he says.
One of the ways Smith would like to assist the younger generation is the increased accessibility of dual-enrollment programs, which allow students to receive college credit in high school.
He and his wife of 29 years, Antoinette, have two daughters, Bria and Jada. Both daughters benefited from being able to get college-level experience while in high school. He would like to see more kids have this opportunity.
Smith would also like to see a more concerted focus on trade schools as a post-graduation option.
“It’s better for the (Eastern Shore) to focus on trades in high school,” Smith says. “It allows kids to jump right into the workforce.”
More than anything, Smith says he’ll miss the people when his last day is over.
“[I’ve] developed these relationships,” Smith said, adding that he will miss “Cape Charles Postmaster Sandra Robinson and his coworkers.
“I’m going to miss the people in town — very difficult to leave that.”
Likewise, the people will miss Smith and his knack for knowing where to put packages when his customers aren’t home.
He made it a point to know people on a personal level, identifying when they may be having a rough day and lending an ear when needed.
It was through a consistent positive attitude that allowed him to enjoy a very long career.
“Show up, do your job every day and do the best you can,” he says.
Smith says that he would recommend a job with the postal service, citing its benefits and decent pay for a family.
“It’s what you make it,” Smith said “You have to come in with a positive attitude. You’ll have good days and bad days.”
His place as the one of the first African-American mail carriers is not lost on him, as he’s seen more and more doors opened during his career.
“I’m thankful and hopeful that I did something so people that look like me can have a chance in the post office,” Smith says.
And whether it was overcoming a lukewarm reception at the beginning, changes in the industry or pushing through soreness, Smith never let anything take his smile.
“Didn’t care if it rained, snowed, or anything,” he says. “I kept going.”