How Booker T. Washington Became the First African-American on a U.S. Postage Stamp

This Booker T. Washington stamp was part of a series depicting influential educators. (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
This Booker T. Washington stamp was part of a series depicting influential educators. (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

What’s in a stamp? Sure, the tiny adhesive objects help mail go to and fro, but what’s on stamps themselves says a lot about a country’s priorities. Seventy-six years ago today, philatelic history was made when the first black person appeared on a stamp in the United States.

The person in question was Booker T. Washington, the legendary educator and author who went from slave to esteemed orator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Washington’s inclusion on not one, but two postage stamps during 1940 represented a postal first—one that was hard-fought and hard-won.

To understand just how important it was to see a person of color on a U.S. postage stamp, you need only imagine what stamps looked like during the first half of the 20th century. Daniel Piazza, chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, tells that at the time, the only subjects thought worthy of being depicted on stamps were “presidents and generals and such,” white men whose national stature was deemed significant enough to rate inclusion on the nation’s envelopes.

By 1940, women had only appeared on stamps eight times—three of which were depictions of Martha Washington, and two of which were fictitious women. In the 1930s, controversy broke out over whether the Post Office Department should issue a stamp that portrayed Susan B. Anthony and celebrated women’s suffrage as opposed to stamps that portrayed military figures. Anthony’s supporters prevailed, and the struggle in turn inspired a black newspaper to ask why there were no African-American people on U.S. postage. “There should be some stamps bearing black faces,” wrote the paper.

Whose face should those stamps represent? Booker T. Washington immediately emerged as a candidate. As a former slave and influential member of the African-American community, Washington was nominated by supporters and eventually Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed.

But when plans to include Washington in a series of ten-cent stamps depicting influential educators were announced, they were slammed by critics. “There was a lot of explicitly racist criticism of the stamp,” Piazza explains, but the stamp’s denomination was even more incendiary.

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SOURCE: Erin Blakemore