Teaching black history through stamp collecting

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Charlene Blair uses her stamp collection to teach black history at Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis.

Photo by: Elisa Tomich

 Teaching black history through stamp collecting

By Elisa Tomich, Wells Fargo Advisors communications consultant

Twenty-six years ago, Charlene Blair, a Wells Fargo executive assistant, stumbled upon a magazine article that intrigued her.

It featured the Black Heritage Collection, the longest running series of U.S. postage stamps, which has celebrated notable African Americans over the years such as Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall, and James Baldwin.

Standing in a St. Louis elementary school classroom earlier this month, Charlene recounted how she immediately went to the Post Office to see if she could buy the 14 stamps that were part of the collection at the time. They were no longer available. So she turned to stamp dealers and collectors to find them, and quickly became a collector herself.

“All these individual stamps have a history to them,” Charlene told the students.

Much of Charlene’s stamp collection is arranged in frames, displayed on easels. It tells the stories of black history, one that she takes to public libraries, schools and social media. It tells stories of civil rights struggles, of inventors and scientists and cultural icons.

Harriet Tubman was the first black woman to be on U.S. stamp, in 1978.

“Is she the one who went back and got the other slaves?” one fifth grader asked. 

“Correct,” Charlene said. “And may one day be on the $20 bill.”

What’s on a stamp says a lot about what a nation values. For most of the 20th century, stamps featured the faces of white men. That slowly began to change in 1940, when Booker T. Washington became the first African American featured on a stamp.

Since then, U.S. postage stamps have featured more than 200 African Americans.

“Do you know who W.E.B DuBois is?” Charlene asked.  His stamp was issued in 1992.

One student knew that he was a social activist.  Another pointed out that he was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University.

In 2017, Charlene began a non-profit organization, the National Museum of African Americans on Stamps, a traveling and virtual display that allows her to share her collection and the stories behind them.

Her favorite stamp is that of Marian Anderson, an opera singer who was denied permission to sing before an integrated audience in Philadelphia due to her skin color. Outraged, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, featuring Anderson. It drew an audience of 75,000. 

“Do you know what an ally is?” Charlene asked the students. “An ally is someone who may not be like you, but is on your side.”

Throughout February, Charlene will take her exhibit on the road, to a public library, a charter high school in Illinois, and a university black business expo, reaching as many as she can about the history-making men and women who appear in her stamp collection.

As the conversation wrapped up at the elementary school, Charlene pointed out that new collectors could start now. The Lena Horne stamp was issued in January.

“I’ll get it from the post office or order it online,” she said.

Wells Fargo Advisors is a trade name used by Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC, Member SIPC, a registered broker-dealer and non-bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company.