Honoring Black Women on U.S. Postage Stamps
By Lynn Norment
Black women have made significant contributions to their communities and this country – in civil rights and community service, education and mathematics, science and medicine, business and entrepreneurship, politics and public service, and in music and the arts. Sometimes their contributions are acknowledged with awards and trophies, with honors and public exaltation.
At times the honor comes with recognition on a simple postage stamp.
The U.S. Postal Service has been honoring African-American women since 1978, when it issued a 13-cent stamp commemorating abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the first stamp in the Black Heritage series. A 32-cent stamp featuring Tubman was issued in 1995 as part of the Civil War series.
The first Black Americans on U.S. postage stamps were educator, author and presidential advisor Booker T. Washington in 1940, followed by scientist, inventor George Washington Carver in 1948. These stamps were issued in an era of segregation and racial inequities, which speaks volumes to the contributions of these two men.
The Black Heritage series recognizes Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other notable Black men, but also incredible Black women who have impacted this country. The series has showcased 18 Black women, including Memphis’ own anti-lynching, crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, who is pictured on a 25-cent stamp issued in 1990.
In addition to Wells, there are several other women with Tennessee connections who have been honored on postal stamps. The legendary blues performer Bessie Smith, who as an impoverished child performed on the streets of Chattanooga in the late 1800s-early 1900s, was featured in the Legends of American Music series in 1994.
The 2004 Distinguished Americans series showcased Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph, the Tennessean who set world records in track and field with successes in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. Rudolph graduated from Tennessee State University in 1963 and became an educator and coach.
Civil rights and suffrage activist Mary Church Terrell, who was born in Memphis in 1863, is commemorated in the 2009 Civil Rights Pioneers series. She was among the first African American women to earn a college degree, and then a masters. And there is novelist and librarian Nella Larsen, educated at Fisk University in Nashville, who is honored in the Voices of the Harlem Renaissance series in 2020.
“The contributions and legacy of Black women who have appeared on U.S. postage stamps are noteworthy and serve to tell America’s story,” says Postal Service spokesperson Roy Betts, a Memphis native. “To appear on a stamp is one of our nation’s highest honors and illustrates how Black women have made a difference in the betterment of society.”
The Black women celebrated on stamps certainly have made a difference. Also honored in the Black Heritage series are educator, civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune; abolitionist, women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth; aviator Bessie Coleman; entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker; Patricia Roberts Harris, the first Black woman to serve in a U.S. Cabinet post; barrier-breaking singer Marian Anderson; and Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 became the first Black actress to receive an Academy Award (supporting actress for “Gone With the Wind”).
Also spotlighted are jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald; Anna Julia Cooper, Ph.D., author, sociologist, activist; politicians Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress; tennis pro Althea Gibson, the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam; civil rights and women’s rights activist Dorothy Height; performer Lena Horne; and lauded journalist Gwen Ifill, who appeared on the 2020 Black Heritage stamp.
While the Black Heritage series is the Postal Service’s best-known effort to commemorate African Americans, Black women also have been featured in other series. In 1998 the Legends of American Music series honored gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, Clara Ward and Sister Rosetta (Tharpe). In 1993, the series showcased singer Dinah Washington, and in 1994 Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, and Ma Rainey.
The current Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which delves into the life of the legendary blues singer, is based on the celebrated play by August Wilson, who is pictured on the 2021 Black Heritage stamp. Actress Viola Davis portrays Ma Rainey in the movie, which also stars Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) in his last role before his death in August 2020.
In addition to Memphian Mary Church Terrell, other Black women the Postal Service showcased in its 2009 Civil Rights Pioneers series were Mary White Ovington, Daisy Gatson Bates, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Ruby Hurley.
Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, was honored with a stamp in the 20th-Century Poets series in 2012, and Edna Lewis in 2014 with Celebrity Chefs. Dynamic Josephine Baker was featured on a stamp commemorating Vintage Black Cinema in 2008. Celia Cruz was feted with Latin Music Legends in 2011, Katherine Dunham with Innovative Choreographers in 2012, Ethel L. Payne with Women in Journalism in 2002, and Zora Neale Hurston with Literary Arts in 2003.
Several Black women were featured on stamps not part of a series, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2013, writer Maya Angelou in 2015, and jazz singer Sarah Vaughan in 2016.
There is a wealth of women’s history captured on postage stamps. Let’s share the knowledge among ourselves and around the world.
Grammy Nomination Marks Fisk Jubilee Singers
150 Years of Musical Excellence
By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN— Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers have much to celebrate this year despite limitations on their performances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group officially formed Oct. 6, 1871, making this year their 150th anniversary.
Adding to the joy, the Singers have been nominated for a Grammy award in the category of Best Roots Gospel Album for “Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album).”
Dr. Paul Kwami, musical director for the choral ensemble and the album’s co-producer said the nomination was especially incredible as it falls the same year as the sesquicentennial celebration of the group’s founding. “It helps the world come to recognize the Singers for their contributions to American music and the world’s music,” Kwami said.
The group was also nominated for Best Gospel Performance by the academy for “I Believe” in 2009 and was a 2008 National Medal of Arts recipient from the National Endowment for the Arts.
An historic institution in itself, Fisk was founded in 1867 to provide a liberal arts education for freed Blacks and was the first African American higher education institution to obtain accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1930.
It was also the first African American institution to be approved by the Association of American Universities and the American Association of University Women, the private college’s website states.
The Singers are world-renowned and symbols of perseverance, bringing Negro spirituals to audiences around the globe since their travels to England to perform for Queen Victoria in 1871. This famous trip served as a fundraising initiative to raise money to keep the then-endangered Fisk University from closing.
With enough money to support Fisk’s continuation, Jubilee Hall was constructed on the university’s campus making it the South’s first permanent African American educational institution. Jubilee Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Though the Singers haven’t performed outside of the university since the pandemic reached Nashville, they have created videos for special performances and will continue to bring their music to the public in a variety of forms, including lectures and a radio program on the 91 FM Classical station.
The ensemble is working with Tennessee Performing Arts Center for an educational film and will provide a lecture broadcast March 16 on the group’s YouTube channel, Kwami said. He also teased about a “main event” taking place Oct. 6.
“Fisk University should be proud to have preserved this wonderful legacy for all these years,” Kwami said.