It is considered a great honor to be selected by the United States Postal Service (USPS) to be depicted on a stamp. The USPS states that they choose significant events and individuals who have made “extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture, or environment” to commemorate on stamps. Because subjects are chosen for their nation-wide recognition and respect, stamps reflect what is valued by society at the time they are issued. By examining representation on stamps, we can see how values change over time and gain a new perspective on American history.
The USPS issued its first stamps in 1847 honoring Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. It wasn’t until 1940, nearly a century later, that the first stamp honoring an African American individual was released. This stamp depicted Booker T. Washington, an educator best known for his leadership of the Tuskegee Institute. Washington dedicated his life to improving the lives of other African Americans through education, but his approach was controversial as he believed that African Americans should comply with segregation and the racial injustice that they faced, avoiding civil rights protests. Instead, he wanted them to focus on learning agricultural and industrial skills. His conservative stance made him the perfect first African American individual on a stamp in a segregated America. Honoring him would both please the African Americans that lobbied for representation and encourage others to embrace his passive approach to the fight for civil rights over those of more radical activists like W.E.B. Du Bois. The choice to honor him is reflective of the widespread values of Jim Crow-era America and the predominantly white government of the time.
After the Booker T. Washington stamp was issued in 1940, representation of African Americans on stamps remained scarce for many years. Between 1940 and the start of the Black Heritage stamp series in 1978, only nine stamps honored African Americans and their contributions. On February 1, 1978, the first stamp in the Black Heritage series was issued. This stamp featured Harriet Tubman, a woman who escaped slavery and went on to help hundreds of other enslaved people escape in the decade before the Civil War. She also served as a spy for the Union in the Civil War and was active in the women’s suffrage meeting. Since 1978, a stamp has been released as a part of the Black Heritage series every year, making it the longest-running U.S. stamp series. In addition to the annual Black Heritage stamp issue, African American representation has increased substantially through other stamp series such as Legends of American Music and Distinguished Americans. The positive reception of the Black Heritage stamps and the overall increase in African American representation mark a notable shift in societal values following the civil rights movement. Racial discrimination is no longer considered socially acceptable, and African Americans are more often publicly recognized and honored for their contributions.
The increase in depictions of African Americans on stamps isn’t the only aspect of postal history that reveals the impact of the civil rights movement on societal values. After the start of the Black Heritage series, the USPS began honoring individuals with more radical beliefs and approaches to activism than Booker T. Washington, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X. W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, civil rights activist, and a founding member of the NAACP, an organization which has worked to end racial injustice since its formation in 1909. Malcolm X was a leader in the civil rights movement who was considered controversial because he encouraged African Americans to protect themselves from racism “by any means necessary,” which conflicted with the nonviolent methods of other civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. By honoring these leaders, the USPS recognizes the importance of revolutionary civil rights activism to the fight for racial equality.
The history of African American representation on stamps is further explored in the Learning Lab collection African American Representation on U.S. Postage Stamps. In the process of creating this Learning Lab, I learned more about African American history than I did from twelve years of public school education. I read about civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Anna Julia Cooper, athletes like Arthur Ashe, the celebration of Kwanzaa, and much more. I found that stamps are both a great way to honor an individual for their contributions to society and a useful tool for educating a wide audience on subjects that they may never otherwise learn about. However, since stamps are small in size, they generally only have space for an image or piece of art and several words to describe who or what is depicted. Because little can be learned from the stamps themselves, it is important to do further research on the people, events, and cultural aspects depicted on them. In the Learning Lab African American Representation on U.S. Postage Stamps, brief descriptions and biographies are included to allow people to learn more about some of the individuals and events that the USPS has chosen to honor on stamps. I encourage those interested in learning more about African American history and postal history to check out this Learning Lab, and everyone who uses stamps to consider what they can learn from them.
About the Author
Margaret Kelley created the Learning Lab collection and accompanying blog post as an intern in the Department of Education and Visitor Experience of the National Postal Museum. Originally from Minnesota, Margaret is in her second year at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she is studying Human Services and Social Justice.