05 November 2008
The depiction of African Americans on the nation's stamps has been a subject of some debate over the years. As the Black Heritage stamps series marks its 30th year, and Barack Obama prepares for his first term in office, Karen Foy investigates... ...
Barack Obama's victorious campaign has been more about change than race, yet the subject of the popular Senator's ethnic origins has, inevitably, enlivened debates in recent months.
In terms of American philately the question of race has occasionally been raised, and although the Black Heritage series was launched in 1978, some critics still ask why it took more than 130 years for a black woman to appear on a US stamp.
To understand the racial complexities that surrounded this area of our history we must first take a trip back in time.
Booker T Washington was born a slave in Franklin County, Virginia on April 5, 1856. After emancipation, he found employment in the coal mines but vowed to better himself. Enrolling at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, his education eventually led to a teaching post, dedicating himself to bettering the lives of other African Americans by founding the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute – modelled on his own educational experiences.
In acknowledgement of his work and determination he became the first African American to be depicted on a US stamp issued on April 7, 1940. This first appearance of a black man on a US stamp could be seen as the turning point that slowly started to change white people's perception of African American influence. Yet the 1940 stamp schedule included more than 40 commemoratives, each designed by William Roach and engraved by CT Arlt, celebrating the work of scientists, inventors, composers and authors. Cynical observers might suggest the Booker T issue was deliberately hidden amongst many others, yet observers should remember that 60 years ago the issue of race was much more complex than it is today.
More than a quarter of a century later, a 25c value of the 1967 Prominent Americans Series paid homage to Frederick Douglass. Raised on a plantation, Frederick Bailey changed his name to Douglass to avoid capture when he escaped to Massachusetts in 1838. His own experiences led him to become a passionate orator on Civil Rights and he even established his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, during his time in Britain.
The Douglass stamp was issued amid the growing civil rights movement and gradually philatelic recognition for the black population was starting to be taken seriously. The defining moment in African American stamp issues took place in 1978, ten years after the assassination of famous Civil Rights campaigner Martin Luther King, when the United States Postal Service launched a series celebrating the achievements of prominent black nationals. Ever since, the regular stamps have honoured individuals who have made outstanding contributions to society whether past or present, in science, education, technology, music, sport or social action.
Under the collective banner of the Black Heritage USA Series, Harriet Tubman was chosen as the first historical figure to appear in this series which made her the first African American woman to be portrayed on a US stamp. Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman eventually escaped but returned on numerous occasions to help over 300 others flee to freedom. In the latter half of the 19th Century, she became a fierce abolitionist, campaigning for human rights, liberty and women’s suffrage and eventually purchased a property in New York which she turned into a home for the elderly and needy.
The proposal of a Black Heritage was put forward during a New York Bicentennial meeting in the Queens Central Library in 1975, during which Chairman and Founder of the Black American Heritage Foundation, Clarence L Irving, presented his plans to the Postal Service.
Originally the stamps were illustrated in colour, but by 1996 the image of the subject was depicted in monochrome to give maximum impact. Jerry Pinkney, a former member of the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee, was given the task of designing the first stamp and went on to add the images of Martin Luther King Jnr (issued in January 1979), Scott Joplin (June 9, 1983) and Jackie Robinson (August 2, 1982), amongst others, to his repertoire.
Positively received in the late 1970s, the annual stamp series helped promote equality and collecting. Today, however, some collectors are asking the question; Is the Black Heritage stamp series still necessary in today's multicultural society? With a black man in the White House it seems the struggle for racial equality has finally bourne fruit, but for many the heritage series is an essential part of the ongoing story.