Since the founding of the United States, African Americans have played a pivotal role in American history and heritage. This series of exhibits showcases the black experience in the United States through the lens of American postage stamps.
Jazz Music Flourishes
Between the 1890s and 1910s, African-Americans in the South developed a new style of music that came to be known as jazz. The roots of jazz are planted in ragtime, blues, spirituals, work songs, and even military marches. Born in New Orleans and elsewhere in the Deep South, jazz quickly spread to Chicago, New York, Kansas City, St. Louis, and all over the United States. Before long, the new unstructured musical style caught on around the world. Jazz was hot in the 1920s and continues to be popular as it evolves into distinct styles for diverse generations.
"If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."- Louis Armstrong
Jazz World Firsts
Starting his musical career as a jazz pianist, Nat King Cole became one of the most popular vocalists of all time. He attained lasting acceptance from audiences around the world from his many recordings and his popular national television show, the first one hosted by an African-American artist.
Even before he was a teenager, Louis Armstrong learned to play the trumpet and the cornet. His mentor was Joe "'King" Oliver, and at the age of 17 he Joined "Kid" Cry's New Orleans band. In 1925, Armstrong started recording with his own band, and in the 1930s he and his band became very popular and successful and toured throughout the United States and Europe. Armstrong's popularity continued into the 1960s, with the number-one hits "Hello Dolly" in 1963 and "What a Wonderful World" in 1968.
Bessie Smith, known as the “empress of the blues,” reigned in the 1920s across the United States and Europe. Her expansive range brought blues music to new audiences of all backgrounds. She made more than a hundred recordings, both of blues and popular songs, paving the way for future blues singers and jazz musicians.
A talented bass player, pianist, composer, and bandleader, Charles Mingus was a notable 20th century musician. He toured with some of the famous big bands of the 1940s (including the Louis Armstrong Orchestra), accompanied many pioneering jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and led diverse ensembles. In the 1950s, to safeguard and archive his enlarging collection of original music, Mingus created his own recording and publishing companies. He toured extensively in the United States and abroad until 1977, when he was diagnosed with the rare nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”).
Born Charles Christopher Parker, Jr. in 1920, Charlie Parker was an innovative composer and jazz saxophonist. Known as “Yardbird” or “Bird,” he was a leader, along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clark, in creating the bebop movement, an original and prominent evolution in jazz that emphasizes listening over dancing.
John Coltrane is considered to be one of the leading jazz artists from the 1950s and 1960s. Well known for his improvised, free-form solos on the saxophone, he performed with such noted musicians as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. In the early 1960s, Coltrane formed his own group, and it became one of the most innovative and celebrated groups in the history of jazz.
Jazz pianist Erroll Garner began playing piano when he was 3 years old and composed more than 200 works without ever learning to read music. He is considered a major jazz innovator, especially for his approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm. Garner is also renowned for playing with a spirit and joy that was infectious to his audiences. His best known song is “Misty.”
James P. Johnson, born in 1894, is credited as the "father of stride piano." Johnson approached the keyboard with powerful, recurrent, octave-spanning, left-hand innovations and rhythmic and harmonic intensities that became acknowledged influences on many of the jazz performers who followed him. Johnson wrote his first major Broadway musical, "Runnin' Wild," in 1923.
Songwriters & Composers
James Weldon Johnson was a noted writer, lawyer, educator, and civil rights activist. His composition “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has long been considered the African-American national anthem, and he was a leading poet, editor, and mentor during the Harlem Renaissance. He served as a U.S. diplomat to Venezuela and Nicaragua and as the general secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Jazz Bands-Leaders & Performers
Born William Basie in 1904, “The Count” was a renowned jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer. His band included some of the greatest musicians of all time. He brought the improvisational sound of jazz into the swing era of the late 1930s and 1940s.
“So I decided that I would be one of the biggest new names; and I actually had some little fancy business cards printed up to announce it, 'Count Basie. Beware, the Count is Here.'”- Count Basie
A composer and pianist, Scott Joplin is known as the “king of ragtime,” a significant development in modern music that combined African-American harmonies and rhythms with other musical styles. In 1899, Joplin composed “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was the genre’s biggest hit. He included ragtime songs in his opera Treemonisha, the first opera composed by an African-American.
“When I'm dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me.”- Scott Joplin
In 1976, almost 60 years after his death, Joplin was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to music.
Born Huddie William Ledbetter, “Leadbelly” was a folk and blues artist who was known as the “king of the 12-string guitar.” He was also a powerful singer of field and prison hollers and, as a participant in the trade union movement in the 1930s, of political protest songs. He never had much commercial success during his lifetime, but after his death in 1949, several of his songs- including “The Midnight Special,” “Cotton Fields,” “Rock Island Line,” and his trademark song, “Goodnight Irene”- became popular hits when sung by other artists.
Josh White was one of the most popular and influential folksingers in America in the mid-20th century. His most famous song, “One Meat Ball,” is about a poor man who has little money to buy dinner and who gets little sympathy from the waiter serving him. The folk music genre has often had a strong social and political foundation, and White’s career is a clear example of that; he sang for President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in the 1940s, he suffered from the effects of McCarthyism in the 1950s, and he was a featured performer at the 1963 March on Washington.
Sonny Terry was born on October 24, 1911 in North Carolina as Saunders Terrell. He is most famous for playing the harmonica mixed with a distinct vocal accompaniment. Terry learned to play the harmonica despite a childhood accident that left him almost completely blind. For more than fifty years, Sonny Terry toured the United States playing folk and blues music. His collaboration with guitarist Brownie McGhee produced what the two called “folk-blues” music. Terry died in Mineola, New York on March 12, 1986.
Development of American Blues Music
W.C. Handy is known as the “father of the blues.” He felt that the music from poor rural African-Americans living in the Mississippi Delta was worth writing down and arranging in properly harmonized versions. In the early 1900s he established his own band in Memphis and wrote such songs as “Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and the world-famous “St. Louis Blues.”
Famous Blues Singers
Despite his short life and limited recording history (he recorded only 29 songs before he died at age 27), Robert Johnson had a tremendous impact on the blues. He is best known for a unique blues guitar style that influenced his contemporaries in the 1930s as well as modern blues artists and even rock guitarists. Johnson is a member of both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Famous Blues Singers
Born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in 1915, “Muddy Waters” was a leader in developing the Chicago blues sound that arose after World War II. His flair for transforming traditional Delta blues into electric blues helped him become a huge success throughout America and eventually around the world.
African American Gospel Singers
Known as the “queen of gospel music,” Mahalia Jackson started singing in church choirs as a young child. She began recording in her early twenties, and received national recognition by appearing at Carnegie Hall and on The Ed Sullivan Show. An active participant in the civil rights movement, she sang at the March on Washington in 1963 and at the funeral for Martin Luther King, Jr.
African American Gospel Singers
Clara Ward was the creative force behind the Ward Singers, often acknowledged as America’s greatest gospel group. She was a celebrated and accomplished composer, pianist, singer, and arranger, and she and her group helped transform the gospel genre by using creative arrangements, wearing colorful costumes, and playing at unconventional venues. Her song “Surely God Is Able” became one of the highest selling gospel records of all time.
Mixing Musical Traditions
Born Ruth Jones in 1924, Dinah Washington became one of America’s most popular and versatile singers. She began her career as a gospel singer, established herself as the “queen of the blues,” and also made recordings of jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, and even country songs. Her signature song was “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Unfortunately, her life was tragically cut short when she died after an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Mixing Musical Traditions
Born in Dawson, Georgia, in 1941, Otis Redding began his singing career in the church choir. As a teenager, he competed in local talent shows and started to work professionally. In the mid-1960s, Redding had a number of hit songs and his style and popularity were growing. But on December 10, 1967, he died in a plane crash. Just a few days before his death, he had recorded “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” which eventually reached the top spot on the pop charts.
During the 20th Century two African-American women altered the landscape of performance singing and recording. Marian Anderson had her professional debut at the New York Philharmonic on August 26, 1925. Ella Fitzgerald began singing in the mid 1930s and had her first number one hit with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" in 1938 at the age of twenty-one.
Anderson is probably best remembered for her performance at the Lincoln Memorial after not being allowed by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. Her performance was attended by 75,000 people and broadcast on national radio.
A Famous Playwright: Baldwin
James Baldwin was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924. His greatest achievement as a writer was his ability to address American race relations from a psychological perspective. In his essays and fiction he suggested repeatedly that all people suffer in a racist climate. Two of his best-known works are the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and the play The Amen Corner. Later Baldwin novels deal frankly with homosexuality and interracial love affairs. Although he mostly lived in Europe, Baldwin never gave up his American citizenship. In France, he was named Commander of the Legion of Honor. He died in Saint-Paul-de-Vance, France on November 30, 1987, and was buried in Harlem.
James Baldwin in France
"In Saint-Paul de Vence he lived beneath the village ramparts, in a bastide nestling in the luxuriant vegetation of a vast garden. He wrote several of his last works in his house in Saint Paul, including Just above my head in 1979 and Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1985. His house was always open to his friends and they would never fail to pop in and say hello when visiting the French Riviera. In his biography, musician Miles Davis wrote: "I'd read his books and I liked and respected what he had to say. When I got to know him better, Jimmy and I opened up to each other. We became great friends. Every time I was in the South of France, in Antibes, I would spend a day or two at his villa in Saint-Paul de Vence. We'd get comfy in that beautiful, big house and he would tell us all sorts of stories. […]. He was a great man."
Paul Robeson & Show Boat
Paul Robeson was a tireless and uncompromising advocate for civil rights and social justice. At Rutgers University, he was a 2-year All-American in football, valedictorian, and a Phi Beta Kappa. Later, he earned a law degree at Columbia University, but soon turned to singing and acting. He was especially known for his renditions of black spirituals and also his stage role in Othello. By the late 1930s, he had become very active and outspoken on behalf of racial justice, social progress, and international peace.
Hattie McDaniel & Gone With The Wind
On December 15, 1939 the film Gone With The Wind featuring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. The story based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book took place around the time of the Civil War in the American south. The film received thirteen Academy Award nominations with eight wins including best picture, best actress and best supporting actress. The best supporting actress award was given to Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy. She was the first African American nominated for an Academy Award and the first to receive an Academy Award. Today, Gone With The Wind is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made.
Hattie McDaniel & Gone With The Wind
Hattie McDaniel was the first African American nominated for an Academy Award and the first to receive an Academy Award.
"Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting for one of the awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you."- Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Awards acceptance speech
Honoring Vintage Black Cinema
Five vintage African-American cinematic productions were honored on United States postage stamps through depictions of the films’ original advertisement posters. The stamp shown here depicts the poster for the earliest of the five films honored in the Vintage Black Cinema Issue. “The Sport Of The Gods” is a silent film about the struggles of a man wrongfully convicted of a crime, and his family’s struggles moving from the south to a new home in New York City. The film was based on a 1902 book by poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Alvin Ailey is one of the four masters of choreography featured on the American Dance stamp. He began his career as a dancer and established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1959. Among his signature works are “Revelations,” a piece that integrates the music of jazz composer Duke Ellington; “Blues Suite;” and “Cry.” In 1979, Ailey received the Capezio Award and the Springarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also won the Kennedy Center Honors Prize in 1988 and received numerous honorary degrees. He worked as a pioneering modern dance choreographer until his death in 1989. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues to tour.
Poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar was so adept at writing verse in African-American dialect that he was called the “poet of his people.” He had such talent and versatility that his brilliant work crossed racial barriers and won him both critical and popular success.
“With it all, I cannot help being overwhelmed by self-doubts. I hope there is something worthy in my writings and not merely the novelty of a black face associated with the power to rhyme that has attracted attention.”- Paul Laurence Dunbar
Langston Hughes was an African-American poet, novelist, and playwright who became one of the foremost interpreters of racial relations in the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s. Hughes had one of the leading voices in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His poems embraced radical politics, poverty, prejudice, violence, and a host of other socio-economic issues that chronicle the African-American experience. Hughes wrote children’s stories, non-fiction, and numerous works for the stage. Hughes published more than 35 books, and his influence is seen in the writings of authors from his generation to the present.
"Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly."- Langston Hughes
American writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston was one of America’s most original and accomplished writers and a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s. She studied African-American heritage at a time when African-American culture was not a popular field of study. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, but moved to Eatonville, Florida, at an early age. Eatonville was the first incorporated all-black town in the United States and the location that influenced the folklore and fiction that Hurston later wrote. As a fiction writer, Hurston is noted for her metaphorical language, her story-telling, and her interest in and celebration of Southern, African-American culture in the United States. Her best known novel is Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In the 1970s, a new generation of African-American writers, most notably Alice Walker, rediscovered and republished many of Hurston’s writings.
An educator, historian, writer, and publisher, Carter G. Woodson promoted the study of African-American people and a more thorough analysis and interpretation of their deeds and contributions. He founded the organization that eventually became the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. In 1926, he started the observance of Negro History Week, which has expanded to the celebration of Black History Month.
In the August 1887 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, a short story appeared written by African-American author from Cleveland, Ohio. Charles W. Chestnutt’s story “The Goophered Grapevine” was just one of the many innovative literary contributions from novels to poems to essays that Chestnutt would produce during his long career. The piece for the Atlantic Monthly was the first short story of Chestnutt’s to be published by a major literary magazine. Throughout the remainder of his career, Chestnutt developed complex and interesting African-American characters along with stories that explored the issues of race in America. The NAACP awarded Charles Chestnutt the Spingarn Award in 1928.
Richard Wright is best remembered for his controversial 1940 novel, Native Son, and his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy. Throughout his career, Wright drew on a wide range of literary traditions, including protest writing and detective fiction, to craft unflinching portrayals of racism in American society. Wright's connections to stamps and the mail are deeper than most who have been honored on a U.S. postage stamp since he worked for the Chicago Post Office from 1927 to 1930 as a letter sorter.
Henry O. Tanner possessed a powerful determination that was largely reflected in the passion of his renowned religious paintings. He spent most of his professional life in France, particularly Paris. As the first African-American artist to win international acclaim, Tanner became a source of inspiration for many young African-American painters in the United States.
The National Postal Museum extends thanks to the United States Postal Service and to its employees who assisted in the creation of this exhibit: Angelo Wider, Roy Betts, Michael Tidwell, Sheryl Turner, Robert Faruq, Meg Ausman, and Pamela Hyman.
Many of the subjects appearing in this exhibit and on U.S. stamps in general are suggested by the public. Each year, the Postal Service receives from the American public thousands of letters proposing stamp subjects. Every stamp suggestion meeting criteria is considered, regardless of who makes it or how it is presented.
To learn more about the stamp selection process, visit the following link to the Postal Service's web site: