Syracuse University Magazine


The Smithsonian’s Freedom Just Around the Corner exhibition brought together stamp designer Richard Sheaff G’77 (left), chief curator of philately Daniel Piazza G’04, designer Christine Lefebvre ’05, African American studies professor Kishi Animashaun Ducre, and assistant curator of philately Calvin Mitchell G’73. 

Photo by Dave Scavone Photography

Smithsonian National Postal Museum Exhibition

Showcasing Black America History

In 1850, a young slave named Susan was sent to the post office in Eastville, Virginia, with a folded letter marked “Sent girl Susan” on the front. In those days, it was a common practice to have slaves carry mail since there was no home delivery or pick up of mail yet. “The notation served as a travel pass for Susan,” says Daniel Piazza G’04, chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. “She was most likely illiterate and probably had no idea that the contents of the letter discussed her impending sale to a slave dealer in Richmond.”

The letter is among 125 objects featured in the exhibition Freedom Just Around the Corner: Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, which runs through February 15, 2016, marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and abolition of slavery, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the March on Selma (to view items, click here). “It’s the first time that African American history has been interpreted through philatelic objects by the use of covers, three-dimensional objects, and a variety of stamps—revenue stamps, postage stamps, stamp art,” says Calvin Mitchell G’73, assistant curator of philately at the museum. “It gives a rather panoramic view of African American history from the Antebellum period all the way up to the civil rights period of the ’60s.”

Piazza and Mitchell, both Maxwell School alumni, worked on the exhibition for three years, drawing from the museum’s extensive collection as well as other Smithsonian holdings and many other sources. They were joined in their collaboration by Christine Lefebvre ’05, a College of Visual and Performing Arts alumna who designed the exhibition space and catalog and also created a special cancellation that can be stamped at the museum’s post office. “I am a bit of a stamp-collecting nerd,” Lefebvre says, “so it was a thrill to design my first postal cancel.”

The exhibition also features works by Richard Sheaff G’77, who designed or art-directed more than 300 U.S. postage stamps. Among those is a Mitchell favorite: one of opera singer Marian Anderson based on an oil portrait by Canadian artist Albert Slark. “Without a doubt, it’s one of the most attractive portrait pieces used for stamp design,” Mitchell says. It’s a highlight of the exhibition’s section on the U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage stamp series. Lefebvre devoted a tremendous amount of time to designing the section, which showcases original U.S. stamp artwork from the Postmaster General’s Collection that never before has been exhibited. “I looked at these images so often and all of the artwork is gorgeous,” she says. “Even though it was a lot of work, it was pleasant work.”

As the exhibition sweeps chronologically through the years, it offers both a celebration of African American culture and an unflinching look at the ominous history of slavery, segregation, and racism. Mitchell, for instance, cites the use of a Ku Klux Klan skull-and-crossbones postmark as a reflection of the Klan’s influence, particularly in the North. Piazza points to an extremely rare slave dealer advertising envelope, as well as a mail carrier’s bag from 1896 that contains separate compartments for “white” and “colored” mail. Other items represent forgotten pieces of the past, such as a U.S. military V-mail microfilm strip from World War II.

The exhibition has drawn a great deal of interest, and Piazza, Mitchell, and Lefebvre hosted an event for an SU in DC alumni group, organized by the Greenberg House, in September. “We can approach very familiar topics in an unusual way that most people have not seen before—and that is, exploring them through stamps and mail,” Piazza says. “Even if you’re very familiar with the subject or the topic, it’s a new way of looking at it.”  —Jay Cox


An SU in DC group of alumni and friends received a special tour of the exhibition, which featured remarks by Professor Ducre.

Photo by Dave Scavone Photography


10¢ Booker T. Washington, 1940


5¢ Emancipation Proclamation concept stamp art by Georg Olden, c. 1963


Portraiture: 22¢ Jean Baptiste Point du Sable approved stamp art by Thomas Blackshear II, c. 1987


“Sent girl Susan” stampless folded letter April 16, 1850


William H. Carney on his postal route, c. 1887


33¢ Martin Luther King Jr. approved stamp art by Keith Birdsong, c. 1999 

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was commemorated in the Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century stamp series issued at the end of the 20th century.


Portraiture: 37¢ Marian Anderson approved stamp art by Albert Slark, c. 2005

Exhibition images courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Looking ahead: Postal Museum assistant curator Calvin Mitchell and designer Christine Lefebvre are collaborating on an exhibition titled New York City: A Portrait Through Stamp Art, which opened December 9 and runs through February 2017.