In 1978, the Harriet Tubman stamp commenced a series honoring African Americans who have made vital contributions to the United States.
On June 22, 2010, Oscar Micheaux joins the ranks of individuals included in what is now one of the longest-running commemorative series: Black Heritage. The pioneering filmmaker wrote, directed, produced, and distributed more than 40 movies during the first half of the 20th century. And like all of the subjects featured in the series, he accomplished these feats in the face of great opposition.
“There is always a certain amount of injustice to address with these stamp subjects,” says PhotoAssist’s Jeff Sypeck, the primary researcher behind the Micheaux stamp as well as a number of previous releases in the series. “Micheaux faced racism at every turn. It’s amazing he was able to accomplish what he did, when he did.”
PhotoAssist has helped the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) identify a wide range of nominees for the series — from entertainers to activists, entrepreneurs to scientists. But despite the magnitude of their accomplishments, many of these notable African Americans never received the recognition they deserved.
Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development, says that a common reaction to the 1991 Jan E. Matzeliger issuance was, “Who?”
Matzeliger, whose invention revolutionized the shoe-making industry, is just one of the heroes whose inspiring stories are featured in the Black Heritage series.
But at times, giving honor where it is due has been controversial. When the committee nominated Malcolm X for the series, they expected resistance. When the stamp was finally issued in 1999, it did cause some debate, but the U.S. Postal Service was mainly praised for recognizing the civil rights leader.
However, the Paul Robeson stamp (2004) proved more contentious because of his Communist ties. In addition to political criticism, the Postal Service was also receiving another type of feedback at the time of Robeson’s issuance — complaints about the artistic style.
The first 16 Black Heritage stamps were printed in full color and usually included a small vignette or additional imagery denoting the subject’s area of accomplishment. But when art director Richard Sheaff took over the series, he strongly believed it needed an updated look.
The 1994 Dr. Allison Davis and the 1995 Bessie Coleman stamps were produced as two-color engravings and included typography and geometric backgrounds suggestive of African carvings or textiles. Sheaff thought the new engraved designs would better appeal to collectors.
Then, in 1996, the design approach changed again: The Ernest E. Just issuance featured a black-and-white photographic portrait rather than an illustration, printed to appear sepia-toned. The use of colorized black-and-white photographic portraits continued through 2004, with the dominant color tone varying from year to year.
While McCaffrey says he and many others at the Postal Service thought the new approach was sophisticated, they received multiple requests from the African-American community to return to full-color stamps rather than the monochromatic look.
After years of receiving such requests, CSAC asked Sheaff to commission a color painting of Robeson for the 2004 issuance. But when the painting was presented to Robeson’s son, Paul Jr., he strongly preferred the black-and-white photograph on which the painting was based.
So it was not until the Marian Anderson issuance in 2005 that the Postal Service returned to an illustrated color portrait. McCaffrey says the Postal Service received many letters and phone calls thanking them for the change. (Trace the artistic progress throughout the entire series here.)
McCaffrey says that, through it all, the Black Heritage series has been one of the most popular ever created. When an early-2000 Internet rumor spread that the series was going to be canceled, the Postal Service was inundated with hundreds of protesting letters, postcards, and phone calls. Despite an official press release denying the rumor, it resurfaces every year.
But the Black Heritage series is still going strong — with no end in sight. There are still many more stories to tell, and much more heritage to honor.
Photo from The Conquest, courtesy of the State Archives of the South Dakota Historical Society.