African Americans in the Military, Exploration and Folklore - The Black Experience on Stamps

Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

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. 

Firsts In Flight & The Military

Bessie Coleman was the first African American to receive a pilot's license, which she earned in France after being denied entry into flight schools in the United States. She returned to the United States and performed in air shows as a stunt flyer. Her goal was to establish a flight school for African-Americans, but she died tragically in a plane crash on April 30, 1926, before she could realize her dream.

Firsts In Flight & The Military

Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. distinguished himself in a long military career that saw him become the nation's first African-American brigadier general. He was a driving force in the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.

African American Explorer: Matthew Henson

Matthew Henson was Admiral Robert Peary's most trusted member of the expedition that discovered the North Pole. Born in Charles County, Maryland, in 1866, Henson went to sea at age 13 and for several years traveled all around the world. When he first met Peary, Henson was in his early twenties, and their shared sense of adventure bound them together for more than 20 years. Henson accompanied Peary on several attempts to reach the North Pole, which they finally reached together on April 6, 1909.

After his death in 1955, Matthew Henson was buried in New York City's Woodlawn Cemetery. In 1968, the body of his wife Lucy Ross Henson was buried nearby. In 1987, at the request of Dr. S. Allen Counter of Harvard University, President Ronald Reagan granted permission for the bodies of Henson and his wife to be re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

On April 6, 1988, the remains of Matthew Henson and his wife were transported to Washington, D.C., where they were re-interred among other American heroes and near the grave site of Robert Peary and his wife Josephine Deibitsch Peary. Members of Henson's family attended the ceremony along with many of the explorer's admirers from around the world. The re-interment represented the ultimate national recognition that Henson had so long deserved.

The brass plaque commemorates Henson.

- Arlington National Cemetery

Folklore: John Henry

John Henry is an African-American folk hero who symbolizes strength and determination. The stories about John Henry are not just "tall tales," for they are based on the life of a real person, a former slave working on the railroads after the Civil War, but time has blurred fact and fiction. In the stories, John Henry, a strong "steel-driving man," accepted the challenge of trying to outperform a steam-powered drill. Swinging a heavy hammer in each hand, he beat the machine but died soon after; some say from exhaustion, others say from a broken heart on realizing that machines would replace muscle and spirit.

African American Heritage: Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday symbolizing the need for a harmonious and principled togetherness in the family, the neighborhood, the nation, and the world. The seven guiding principles that Kwanzaa celebrates are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

The Kwanzaa stamp was first issued October 22, 1997.

African American Heritage: Kwanzaa

The People in Robes Kwanzaa stamp was issued October 16, 2004.

Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
Credits: Story

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:

Visit the National Postal Museum's Website

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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