A special chair for Richard
  • A black church’s cemetery under a child’s playground
  • A black church’s first female minister
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    A hearty celebration for Richard Allen stamp

    The singing and praising were loud enough to wake the dead. The soloist for the Postal Service Choir had raised the audience from their seats in spirited song, setting them to swaying and clapping to the R&B song “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang.

    Mother Bethel AME Church was packed, from the wrap-around balcony to the main floor of the sanctuary (and the Fellowship Hall on the lower floor).

    “I bet this doesn’t happen at other first-day issues,” observed my friend Rebecca, a collector of African American books and memorabilia. I’m sure she was right.

    Richard Allen stamp

    The Richard Allen stamp.

    Two floors below the sanctuary, the remains of the man being celebrated lay in the church’s basement, which also held a museum. Bishop Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1816.

    Yesterday, an image of Allen the Renaissance man who lived and acted on his faith looked out from a large banner on a stand slightly above the podium. He was extolled by AME bishops, one of his male descendants, the mayor of Philadelphia and Vernon Jordan Jr., a lifelong AME member, friend of President Clinton, and former director of the Urban League and the United Negro College Fund. Jordan was master of ceremonies.

    Allen was being honored in a U.S. Postal Service “First-Day-of-Issue” stamp dedication ceremony. He is one of 39 African Americans whose faces are on postage stamps in the Black Heritage Series. The first was a 13-cent Harriet Tubman stamp in 1978. There have been other celebrants who are not part of this series.

    Richard Allen stamp

    Richard Allen stamp products for sale at the ceremony.

    Allen was born a slave, but rose to become an activist leader whose religious beliefs fueled his public service. Born in 1760 in Philadelphia, he grew up on a plantation in Delaware, and found his calling after listening to an abolitionist preacher. He was so inspired by the minister’s message that he encouraged the plantation owner to hear the sermon. The owner, who had sold Allen’s (then known as Richard) mother and three siblings, was so moved that he offered to give the teenage Allen his freedom for a price.

    Allen was given five years to buy his freedom but took only 1 ½ years, according to a program speaker. Taking the last name Allen, he traveled the mid-Atlantic region preaching to both African Americans and whites. A white Methodist minister at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia asked him to preach to its black congregants. After he gained a following inside and outside the church, he decided that it was time to follow his own path.

    St. George’s trustees disagreed and “used very degrading and insulting language to us” to keep them from leaving, Allen said. When the church built a new seating gallery for its black members, and then tried to forcibly remove them from their old spot, Allen and his group left St. George’s but not the Methodist faith.

    Richard Allen stamp

    A half-sheet of Richard Allen stamps.

    Allen bought a blacksmith’s shop and moved it to Sixth and Lombard Street in Philadelphia on land that he owned, according to the program. The building was converted in 1794, and Bethel Church, which became Mother Bethel, was founded. Allen and his congregation had to fight to keep their church building because white church trustees tried to sell it. He was able, however, to get it back at an auction.

    Through the work of Allen’s wife Sarah, the church became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

    Allen and other black Methodist leaders in 1816 founded the AME Church, and he became its first bishop. This year is the 200th anniversary of the church, whose members are meeting in Philadelphia this summer. A statue of Allen and a memorial courtyard are scheduled to be erected this year on the church grounds.

    Engraving of Mother Bethel Church, 1804

    An 1804 engraving of Mother Bethel AME Church, one of four buildings since its founding. A Library Company of Philadelphia photo.

    His work was not confined to inside the church walls. Allen and Absalom Jones formed the Free African Society, a mutual aid society to benefit African Americans. During the outbreak of yellow fever in 1793, the two mobilized African American aid workers. When the workers were accused of stealing from victims, he and Jones published a document in defense of them and their efforts. During the War of 1812, Allen organized the black community to help defend the city.

    Allen died in 1831, having left a mark and a legacy for which yesterday’s ceremony paid homage.

    One speaker noted that the issuance of the stamp was a “watershed” in the history of the AME church. The Post Office is hoping that the church’s 2.5 million members will buy the “Forever stamps,” a designation that drew steady applause from the audience.

    The campaign for a Richard Allen stamp began in 2002 with Jacquelyne Dupont-Walker, director of the social action commission of the AME church, who helped collect 40,000 signatures. She got word on her birthday that the stamp had been approved, she said.

    Two stamps from Betty D. Sessions First-Day-of-Issue book. On the left is Jackie Robinson from the Legends of Baseball (2000), and Marian Anderson from the Black Heritage Series (2005).

    Two stamps from Betty D. Sessions First-Day-of-Issue book. On the left is Jackie Robinson from the Legends of Baseball (2000) and Marian Anderson from the Black Heritage Series (2005).

    The stamp was a major hit at the ceremony (and drew stamp collectors, or philatelists, too). Throngs crowded around Post Office sales tables before the program began and snapped up tons of stamp sheets, First Day Covers and other items. Several Post Office workers wore lapel pins that were not for sale, but many – including me – were ready to buy one.

    Betty D. Sessions brought along a small book of First Day stamps she has collected, some of which were not African Americans. Each page bore a postage stamp, along with a First-Day-of-Issue mark. A Post Office worker stamped her Richard Allen stamp page in the same way. He was stamping envelopes and pages on which some folks had affixed their own stamps.

    Sessions, a member of the Ebony Society of Philatelic Events & Reflections, has been collecting stamps for more than 30 years, participating in a hobby that was once the domain of “middle class white males,” she said.

    Richard Allen portrait

    This circa 1940 portrait of Richard Allen by artist Bernard Goss came up for auction in December but did not sell. It was believed to have been painted for the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. Photo from Swann Auction Galleries.

    She attends many first-day ceremonies across the country. Her book contained such stamps as Civil Rights Pioneers (2009, New York), author Richard Wright (2009, Chicago), educator Anna Julia Cooper (Washington, DC, 2009) – “Look on your passport, page 26, you’ll see her words,” Sessions said – World War II hero Dorie Miller (2010, Washington), artist Romare Bearden (2011, New York) and singer Marian Anderson (Washington, 2005).

    She creates what she calls freedom stamp art. When she attended the ceremony for the stamp commemorating the 1960 Greensboro, NC, sit-in, she said, she took brown paper bags, affixed stamps to them and had the bags marked as First Day issues.

    “I do it more for kids, so they’ll look at a stamp and they’ll look at that brown paper bag and they’ll say, ‘why?'” said Sessions, who offers presentations on her artwork.


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