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Davis: Black Heritage stamp series is great way to learn

Author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is shown on the 33rd in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series.
Author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is shown on the 33rd in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series.

For maybe the fourth time in four years, I've received a frantic message from a reader wanting me to write something about the Post Office's plans to destroy unsold Black Heritage series stamps and not print any more.

Let me state this emphatically. It is not true. It is false.

In fact, the U.S. Postal Service recently issued two stamps depicting people and entities in black history, one with Kentucky ties.

The most recent of the two commemorative stamp products unveiled at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., highlights the black professional leagues that, in their heyday, drew large crowds. They gave black baseball players a chance to show their skills, which, because of segregation, could not be displayed in the white professional leagues. The Negro Leagues were popular from 1920 until about 1960.

Credited as the league's founder, Andrew "Rube" Foster — a great pitcher and owner of the Chicago American Giants, one of the most dominant teams in the league — is depicted on one stamp in that issue, while an umpire, arms out wide signaling safe, is depicted on the second stamps in that series. Those two 44-cent stamps were issued on July 15.

On June 22, the Postal Service issued the 33rd stamp in its Black Heritage series, which has featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. DuBois.

The most recent stamp in that series honors Oscar Micheaux. I didn't know who he was either. We need to, though, because, for one thing, his parents were born in Kentucky. I found this and much more out after doing a little research.

In the first half of the 20th century, Micheaux was the first African-American to produce a movie. Eventually, he produced and directed more than 40 movies, including one that introduced Paul Robeson in 1924. Micheaux also authored seven books. He began writing novels after a failed marriage and the death of a child, and later branched out into movies, starting and losing a movie company a few times.

Micheaux was far more adventurous than other members of his immediate family. Both his parents were born into slavery in Western Kentucky. After the Civil War, they took the family across the Ohio River to Illinois, a free state, where Oscar Micheaux was born outside of Metropolis in 1884.

Micheaux's paternal grandmother, uncles and aunt, however, moved to Kansas during the exodus from Southern states that enticed so many blacks to go west with a promise of 160 acres. Micheaux's family settled in Stafford County, Kan.

Micheaux's father, Swan, refused to pack up his wife and 11 children. In 1901, however, deeply in debt, the family headed for Kansas and their share of an inheritance left by Micheaux's uncle who had become a successful Kansas farmer.

The year before that move, Micheaux headed off on his own, first to Chicago, where he worked as a Pullman porter. He saved enough money by 1904 to buy a homestead near Gregory, S.D.

Micheaux wrote and published his first novel, The Conquest, in 1913. By 1917, he had sold his land and written two more novels.

The motion picture industry was attracting attention. He saw that venue as a way to better tell his stories and in 1919 he directed and produced a silent film on a very limited budget called The Homesteader. It was based on his third novel of the same name.

In doing so, he became the first African-American to make a film. He also was the first African American to produce a "talking" film when he produced The Exile in 1931.

Micheaux's portrayal of blacks differed greatly from the images of lazy, inept blacks produced in Hollywood at that time. Paul Robeson, for example, had a dual acting role in Micheaux's Body and Soul, and portrayed a minister who rapes the daughter of a member of his congregation.

Micheaux traveled around the country promoting his films himself. He died in 1951 while on a promotional tour. He is buried in Great Bend, Kan., near family members.

In 1987 Micheaux was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Two years later, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and the Director's Guild of America honored his name with awards. And each year Gregory, S.D., stages the Oscar Micheaux Film Festival. And to think he was almost a Kentuckian.

At any rate, black stamps are still being produced and sold. You can find these 44-cent stamps on line or ask for them at your local post office.

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