Esse-a-Go-Go: The Post Office Story

When I buy stamps, I always ask for “the writer stamps.” It’s usually a pretty simple request. I ask for the writer stamp du jour, the clerk provides it, I buy it, the end.

On a recent trip to the main office of the U.S. Postal Service here in my hometown, I encountered something different. I’m still not sure what it was, but this is what happened.

The waiting line was long, long enough to engender awkward silences between me and the people standing next to me. We’d start some small talk with the assumption that we wouldn’t be standing there long, and then five minutes later when we were still standing there it was uncomfortable. Every incremental push forward in our line was one breath closer to social relief.

At the window, I made my standard request for the writer stamps. The clerk looked in the drawer and shrugged, “I don’t see any.”

“That’s OK,” I said, wary of upsetting the waiters behind me. “I’ll just take…..”

“Let me go look in the back,” he said.

Well, that’s right nice of you. Hurry back.

Except he didn’t hurry back. He was gone a long time. The people behind me starting pawing the earth. I glanced back repeatedly, smiling weakly and suggesting that I had no idea what the clerk was doing or why.

When he finally reappeared, he had stamps in hand but they were clutched to his chest so I couldn’t see what the images were.  He looked and me and said, “OK, I found some stamps. We do have some.”

What’s the drama?

“First, I want to show you these,” he said. “These are so beautiful and they are some of my personal favorites.”

He showed me a very pretty stamp from the American Treasures series. It was an Edward Hopper painting of a sail boat.

“Now I also have these,” he said.  He revealed the second stamp, a Black Heritage series stamp of John H. Johnson (1918-2005).  I realized to my dismay that the clerk was afraid.

He was afraid to show me a stamp of a black man.

What did he think, that when I said writer I really meant sailboat? That I don’t think African-Americans are writers? That girls only like purty things with pastels and sunshine? That I would call his supervisor for daring to try to sell me a Black Heritage stamp when I’m white and I said I wanted a writer stamp so surely I must have meant a white writer?

The truly strange thing is that to this day as I write this, I’m still not angry with this clerk. He went out of his way to help me. He did what I asked him to do. What stays with me is that he assumed I didn’t want this stamp.  What he did was make me want this stamp even more, and make me want you to want it, too.

Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.

This man was incredible, and I never knew his name before my Post Office story. Thank you, strange clerk. You helped me more than you know.

John Johnson. Forever.

(Right about now, I wonder what’s happening at Karan-a-Go-Go…….)

In 2012, the Postal Service® is pleased to honor John H. Johnson, the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines. Johnson overcame poverty and racism to build a business empire embracing magazines, radio stations, cosmetics, and more. His magazines portrayed black people positively at a time when such representation was rare, and played an important role in the civil rights movement.

His unwillingness to accept defeat was a key to Johnson’s success. When he was unable to buy a lot in downtown Chicago because of his skin color, he hired a white lawyer who bought the land in trust. Thus, Johnson became the first black person to build a major building in Chicago’s Loop, where Johnson Publishing still has its headquarters.

As Johnson’s influence, accomplishments, and fortune grew, he received many prizes and honors. He joined Vice President Richard Nixon on a goodwill tour of Africa and served as a Special United States Ambassador for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1966. Six years later, in 1972, his industry peers named him publisher of the year — a prize Johnson compared to winning an Oscar. In presenting Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, President Bill Clinton lauded him for giving hope to African-Americans during difficult times. A panel of experts polled by Baylor University in 2003 named Johnson “the greatest minority entrepreneur in American history.” That same year, Howard University named its journalism school after him.

The John H. Johnson (Forever®) stamp, designed by Postal Service art director Howard Paine, features a color photograph of Johnson taken by Bachrach Studios. The photographer was David McCann.

The U.S. Postal Service has recognized the achievements of prominent African-Americans through the Black Heritage series since 1978. This stamp honoring Johnson is the 35th stamp in that series, which highlights outstanding individuals who helped shape American culture.

The stamp is being issued as a Forever stamp. Forever stamps are always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.