Build a precious collection

Take a look at the Black Heritage series of U.S. postage stamps

Even if you’re not a philatelist (pronounced fee-late-tul-ist, a.k.a. stamp collector), you probably already know that El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, popularly known as Malcolm X, got his own stamp earlier this year. It was actually the 22nd stamp in the Black Heritage series. But not all stamps featuring African Americans are in the Black Heritage series. And the famous faces featured in the Black Heritage series aren’t the only ones worth collecting.

According to Monica Hand, a media relations representative who works for the United States Postal Service in Washington, D.C., "The Black Heritage series began February 1, 1978, with Harriet Tubman." The very first postage stamp ever to feature an African American was the Booker T. Washington stamp, which was issued on April 7, 1940. It was part of the Famous Americans/Educators series. Some other series that have featured African Americans and/or their achievements include the Legends of American Music series, which featured John Coltrane; the Performing Arts series, which featured Duke Ellington; and the Holiday Celebration series, which featured the Kwanzaa stamp. Nearly 100 different stamps have been printed that have some relevance to African Americans.

The success of a stamp is not consumer driven. As a matter of fact, the "success" of any commemorative (collectible) series is relative. According to Hand, who has been a spokesperson for the Black Heritage series since 1992, "Different consumer groups drive the interest in different stamps. For example, in the Black Heritage series, Omega Psi Phi fraternity was a prominent supporter of the Ernest E. Just stamp, and various aviator organizations were strong advocates of the Bessie Coleman stamp."

There’s much more to stamp collecting than what meets the envelope. If you’ve got your eye on a particular stamp, remember that commemorative stamps are only available from your local post office for about a year after they are first printed. After that, you’ll need to specially order them. Also, if you are buying from private stamp dealers, stamps in "new" or "mint" condition sell for a higher price than used stamps. And if you want an added twist, consider collecting first issues. These postmarked stamps, also available from stamp dealers, are displayed on an envelope featuring specially designed artwork. Today’s enthusiasts can collect postage stamps as well as the host of things that are affiliated with them.

Why should you consider this pastime? "Collecting stamps is a good way to learn black history," says Clarence McKnight, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Ebony Society of Philatelic Events Reflections (ESPER). This nonprofit organization is the only one of its kind for African Americans. It hosts lectures, publishes a bimonthly newsletter, maintains an information-packed Website (www.slsabyrd.com/esper.htm) and provides an avenue into the world of African American stamp collectors. "Our newsletter, Reflections, is not only a good source of information for African Americans interested in stamps, it also provides a vehicle for networking and stamp trading," McKnight adds.

In the fall or early winter

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