First African Americans on U.S. Stamps

In 1940, Booker T. Washington was the first African American to be specifically honored on a U.S. stamp. As part of the Famous Americans Series, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was honored as an educator. In 1888, Washington was appointed as the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute, a teachers' college for Blacks. By the time he died in November, 1915, the Tuskegee Institute had an endowment of $1,945,000, a staff of almost 200, and a student population of 2000. According to the museum's website, "In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to numerous petitions from African-American supporters, recognized the timeliness of such a stamp and directed that Washington be considered for this important stamp series." It goes on to say, "Enthusiasm for the Booker T. Washington stamp and its momentous significance for the African-American population prompted two official second day of issue ceremonies, events unprecedented in philatelic history—one in New York City and the other in Philadelphia." Critics of the stamp said that the stamp should have been the regular first class rate of 3-cents so that more people would have seen it and could afford it. Booker T. Washington was honored once again in 1956, the centennial of his birth, with a first-class rate stamp. Shown here, the stamp’s vignette features an image of a cabin similar to the one in which he was born.

On February 1, 1978, Harriet Tubman became the first African-American woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp. Her stamp was also the first stamp issued for the Black Heritage Series. She was honored again June 29, 1995.  Harriet Tubman, known as the Moses of her people, was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. From her early teens, she worked as a field hand. In 1849, she made her escape from slavery, guided in her flight only by the North Star. It was not long afterwards that she became one of the conspicuous "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized system for helping fugitive slaves escape to the free states or Canada. It was run by local groups of Northern abolitionists, both White and free Black. Under the cover of darkness, "conductors" brought fugitives, often in a cart, to a farmhouse "station" to be fed and sheltered, then guided the "passengers" on to the next stop. At great personal risk, Harriet Tubman made at least nineteen trips into slave country and led more than three hundred slaves, including her own aged parents, to freedom in the North. Later, she became well known in Boston and New York as a speaker at antislavery rallies. During the Civil War, she rendered noteworthy service as a scout and spy for the North. After the war, she continued to labor for her people until her death. From field hand to "conductor" to public speaker, Harriet Tubman waged an awesome campaign against slavery.