By Harry Rinker
The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), comprised of up to 15 individuals, recommends to the Postmaster General postage stamp subjects that are contemporary, timely, and relevant, while at the same time representative of the cultural diversity that is the United States. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe appointed me to a three-year CSAC term beginning January 1, 2012.
CSAC members are informed of first day of issue ceremonies and encouraged to attend. Many first day ceremonies are held in large metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. Living in Kentwood, near Grand Rapids, Mich., attending one of these ceremonies requires considerable traveling costs, although I was sorely tempted last year to hop a plane to Florida for the first day of issue of the “Mail a Smile” stamp pane.
During the January 2013 CSAC meeting in Washington, D.C., I learned first day of issue ceremonies for the Rosa Parks commemorative stamp were scheduled for Monday, February 4, the 100th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birth, in Detroit and Dearborn, a two-and-one-half hour drive from Kentwood. I was determined to attend, even though it meant leaving the house at 4:00 a.m., driving on snow-covered highways, and tolerating a day of inclement weather, none of which pleased my wife Linda.
The Rosa Parks stamp is the second of three stamps commemorating the African-American experience. The first stamp, issued January 1, with “Freedom” in the selvage of the pane, honored the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Rosa Parks stamp has “Courage” in its selvage. The third stamp, commemorating the March on Washington, is slated for issue later this year.
The first of the two ceremonies took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit at 7:30 a.m. in the museum’s General Motors Theater. Currently the largest institution dedicated to the African-American experience (its claim will be invalid once the Smithsonian African-American Museum opens in 2015 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.), the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History houses numerous collections such as the Blanche Coggin Underground Railroad Collection and the Coleman A. Young Collection.
The dedication ceremony featured several individuals who knew Rosa Parks including Detroit Councilwoman Joann Watson, Elaine Easton Steele (co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development), and Senator Carl Levin. Detroit Postmaster Lloyd Wesley, Jr. and Elaine Steele unveiled the stamp.
Although Rosa Park is best known for her December 1, 1955 refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala. bus, the ceremony speakers called attention to Rosa Parks’ dedication to the civil rights movement prior to and long after that event. As a tribute to Rosa Parks, February 4 is now recognized federally as a Day of Courage, the central theme of the day-long ceremony at the Henry Ford Museum.
As the speakers recounted Rosa Parks’ accomplishments, a sudden realization came over me: I was there. Not literally — I was 14 and living in Hellertown, Pa. However, I was there intellectually.
NBC launched the first permanent commercial television network in June 1947, connecting New York, Philadelphia, Schenectady, and Washington, D.C. I lived in that network corridor. By 1951, NBC and the competing networks stretched from coast to coast, thus setting the stage for immediate national coverage of the Civil Rights struggles.
National pictorial magazines such as Colliers, Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post, all of which arrived weekly at my home, contributed to the “I was there” mentality. My most vivid 1950s and 1960s memories of the Civil Rights struggle, the Kennedy assassination, and the Vietnam War are pictorial. While television news reports impacted me, it is the pictorial images that I remember most vividly.
[Author’s Aside: I have had a life-long curiosity, fascination, and love of history. In the process of writing this column, I reflected upon what influences caused that interest to grow and mature. You Are There, hosted by Walter Cronkite and broadcast between 1953 and October 1957, kept recurring. The show took viewers back to key events in American and World History. The show’s epic closing line still echoes in my mind: “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times … all things as they were then, and you were there.” Many of the 147 episodes are lost. The Museum of Broadcast Communication in Chicago has 20 episodes available for onsite viewing.]
Rosa Parks clearly was involved in multiple events that altered and illuminated our times. My concern is that so many young people do not remember, let alone identify, with the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights struggles. Three to four new generations have been in the interim. Today’s young people look forward and ignore the past. When it comes to 20th century events, fewer and fewer are able to say, “I was there” or care.
Members of Rosa Parks’ family, including several nieces, members of her AME congregation, neighbors, and friends were in attendance at the unveiling of the Rosa Parks stamp at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum. Since the first day of issue stamp ceremony at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn began at 9:30 a.m., I did not have time to talk with them, something I deeply regret.
The Henry Ford Museum first day of issue ceremony was part of a National Day of Courage event that ended when the museum closed at 9:30 p.m. I arrived in time to hear Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1998 to 2010 and now a professor at American University, give the keynote address. It is odd how people remember others. More often than not, it is earlier rather than later accomplishments that first come to mind. For me, Julian Bond means SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group whose activities divided rather than united people in the 1960s.
“Confession is good for the soul” (an old Scottish proverb, although most often attribute it to Romans 10:9 in the Bible) applies. I had an ulterior motive for attending the first day of issue ceremony. In addition to stamps, the United States Postal Service also sells philatelic collectibles ranging from first day of issue caches and covers to posters. Local and regional post offices are the primary sales sites.
Although a generalist, I am working on increasing my knowledge of the secondary stamp commemorative market. I took note of those stamp collectors who attended the first day of issue at both locations, chased down participants other individuals they felt were important, and had them sign a variety of items ranging from a stamp pane to a first day cover. The United States Postal Service had an autograph table set up at the Henry Ford Museum. Unfortunately, none of the dignitaries chose to participate. There was no formal autograph table at the Clarence H. Wright Museum of African American History, but the autograph hunters were much more aggressive there than at the Henry Ford Museum.
The United States Postal Service also had a booth at each location at which stamp panes and a variety of other material was offered for sale. Sales at the Clarence H. Wright Museum of African American History Museum were brisk immediately following the event. Although the crowd at the Henry Ford Museum was 10 times that at the Clarence H. Wright Museum of African American History, sales were much slower.
I obtained an order sheet for the philatelic items offered at the Henry Ford Museum. I was surprised at how inexpensive the items were. The Rosa Parks first day cover was 90 cents. The Emancipation Proclamation first day cover was a penny cheaper — $0.89.
This was my first visit to the Henry Ford Museum, one of the most important museums on my “I should have visited earlier” list. During my brief walk around, I had an “I was there” moment variation. A Corvair was among the cars in a chronological history of the American automobile. It was an “I owned one of those” moment. They occur with greater frequency now than ever before when I visit museums. A return visit to the Henry Ford Museum is a must.
Meanwhile, check out the commemorative stamps at your local post office. Do not be surprised if some evoke an “I was there” memory. You do not have to be over 70 to experience this.
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© Harry L. Rinker, LLC, 2013
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