At a 1975 planning meeting of the Queens County, New York, Bicentennial Committee, Clarence L. Irving, founder of the Black American Heritage Foundation (BAHF), proposed asking the U.S. Postal Service to include black Americans in the stamp program associated with the upcoming Bicentennial of the United States. The proposal quickly outgrew its original scope, and in 1978, the U.S. Postal Service, as part of its mission "to celebrate the people, events, and cultural milestones that are unique to our great nation," created a totally new stamp series to honor black Americans and the vital role they have played in U.S. history.
The first stamp in the new Black Heritage Series featured Harriet Tubman (1820–1913). Born a slave, she helped more than 300 slaves escape to freedom along the fabled "Underground Railroad.” Tubman was the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. stamp.
The Black Heritage stamp series is the longest running commemorative stamp series in U.S. history. The Black Americans honored in the series are known for their contributions to U.S. history and culture, as activists, scientists, artists, actors/musicians, writers, educators, doctors, inventors, politicians, and more.
Part One: 1978 to 1989
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was featured on the first stamp in the new Black Heritage series. Born a slave, she escaped from slavery in 1849 and helped more than 200 slaves escape to freedom along the famed “Underground Railroad." Later in life, she worked for the Union Army as a cook, nurse, armed scout, and even a spy. The stamp (Scott 1744) was issued on February 1, 1978.
Martin Luther King (1929-1968) was featured on the 1979 Black Heritage stamp. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a desegregation activist, Christian minister, and leader, and played a leading role in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, during the March on Washington, King delivered one of his most famous speeches, “I Have a Dream,” and was honored as Time magazine’s Man of the Year. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his outstanding desegregation efforts. The stamp (Scott 1771) was issued on January 13, 1979.
Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was featured on the 1980 Black Heritage stamp. As one of America’s most accomplished African Americans during the colonial period, he was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer. Banneker was a member of the team that surveyed and designed the layout for Washington, D.C. His accomplishments as an astronomer were included in his almanacs that were published from 1792-1797. The stamp (Scott 1804) was issued on February 15, 1980.
Whitney M. Young (1921-1971) was featured on the 1981 Black Heritage stamp. He entered the field of race relations after serving under a white captain in an all-black regiment during World War II. His first social-work position was for the National Urban League (NUL), followed by seven years of working for the Atlanta Council. By 1961 Young returned to the NUL and was the head of the national organization during its most progressive period (1961-1971), helping black Americans in the areas of education, employment, and housing. In 1969 he was awarded our nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. The stamp (Scott 1875) was issued on January 30, 1981.
Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) was featured on the 1982 Black Heritage stamp. He was the first black baseball player to play in the American Major Leagues during the 20th century. After being rejected by the Boston Red Sox because of his skin color, Robinson broke the decades-old “colour line” of Major League Baseball when he appeared on the field for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He played as an infielder. In 1962, he became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Following his baseball career, Robinson became an advocate for social and political causes to help break barriers for all people. The stamp (Scott 2016) was issued on August 2, 1982.
Scott Joplin (1867-1917) was featured on the 1983 Black Heritage stamp. He became well-known for his talent to combine African-American rhythms with the music of gospel hymns, spirituals, dance, syncopation, blues, and choruses. He immersed himself in the emerging musical form known as ragtime and became the genre’s foremost composer. Several of Joplin’s compositions were featured in the Academy Award-winning movie The Sting. Joplin was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his contribution to music. The stamp (Scott 2044) was issued on June 9, 1983.
Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) was featured on the 1984 Black Heritage stamp. Woodson, also known as the “Father of Black History,” strongly believed that black Americans should be proud of their heritage and that other Americans should also understand it. Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History as a means of spreading the awarness of black history and culture, and authored numerous scholarly books on the positive contributions of African Americans to the development of the nation. In 1926, he started the observance of “Negro History Week,” which has since grown into “Black History Month.” The stamp (Scott 2073) was issued on February 2, 1984.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was featured on the 1985 Black Heritage stamp. As the daughter of former slaves, she became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the 20th century. Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls and the National Council for Negro Women, and was the first African American woman to become the head of a federal agency. She was later appointed as a special assistant to the Secretary of War during World War II, an advisor on minority affairs to President Roosevelt, and a consultant on interracial affairs to Eleanor Roosevelt. The stamp (Scott 2137) was issued on March 5, 1985.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was featured on the 1986 Black Heritage stamp. She was very involved with the evangelical movements of the mid-1800s, and was an African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist, best-known for her speech on racial inequalities, "Ain't I a Woman?," delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. President Abraham Lincoln appointed Sojourner to the National Freedmen’s Relief Association in 1864, where she advised former slaves as they started their new lives as free men and women. The stamp (Scott 2203) was issued on February 4, 1986.
Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable (1745-1818) was featured on the 1987 Black Heritage stamp. Building the first permanent home on the banks of the Chicago River, Du Sable is acknowledged as a black pioneer trader and founder of the settlement that later became the city of Chicago. In addition to his home, he also built a trading post. By 1790 Du Sable’s establishment had become an important link in the region’s fur and grain trade. The stamp (Scott 2249) was issued on February 20, 1987.
James W. Johnson (1871-1938) was featured on the 1988 Black Heritage stamp. As a lawyer, he became the first black man to be admitted to the Florida Bar. As an educator, he established a high school for African Americans in his hometown, Jacksonville, Florida. Johnson also served as the executive secretary of the NAACP and was an involved civil rights activist. However, he may be best known for his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which told of the grievances that the black society had against the racial policies of the white society. The stamp (Scott 2371) was issued on February 2, 1988, and features the lyrics of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," a song honoring Booker T. Washington that Johnson wrote with his brother. The song is also known as the "Black national anthem."
A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) was featured on the 1989 Black Heritage stamp. For more than 60 years Asa Philip Randolph lectured on the importance of equal rights and equal opportunity. He organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which by 1937 would become the first official African-American labor union. Randolph was actively involved with the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, and formed the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience and the Negro-American Labor Council. Because of his efforts, President Truman issued an executive order which allowed black recruits to be admitted into the Army and Navy Academies. The stamp (Scott 2402) was issued on February 3, 1989.
The Black Heritage series currently has 43 subjects. Read Part 2 here.
In 2017, the American Philatelic Society published its most recent update of the Black Heritage series album pages, available for free download now.
Interested in learning more about the Black Heritage series and black history on stamps? Check out ESPER, the Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections, which has excellent resources to share. Happy Black History Month!