More than 200 people attended a public unveiling of the U.S. Postal Service’s latest Black Heritage forever stamp in downtown Baton Rouge on Saturday in a ceremony the organizer described as historic.
The event, which took place at Bethel AME Church, was to unveil a stamp that honors Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bethel shares the name of the original AME Church founded by Allen. The unveiling is the second such event following an original ceremony in Philadelphia on Feb. 2 and was performed by postal service and church officials.
Bishop Julius H. McAllister, president of the AME Church’s Council of Bishops and leader of a district that includes all of Louisiana and Mississippi, attended the first service in Philadelphia and was featured speaker for this one.
After he and Sarah Augustine, Baton Rouge postmaster, lifted the blue drape off a large photo of the stamp, he declared this service just as historic as the first one.
“We have just unveiled the Richard Allen Black Heritage commemorative forever stamp. Somebody say, ‘forever,’ ” McAllister called and the audience responded with an enthusiastic “forever” and vigorous applause. “This stamp recognizes our founder and the AME Church and we thank the U.S. Postal Service for it.”
McAllister said they first began appealing to the Postal Service with letters and petitions for Allen’s recognition back in 1987. “It has been a long journey to get to this place … a testament that reflects our founder’s legacy of life and determination for all Americans — not just African-Americans but for all Americans.”
Born a slave in 1760, Allen had a biblical conversion experience as a teenager in a Methodist revival and became a preacher. He purchased his own freedom by working extra hours for more than three years for his master on a Delaware plantation, said Pamela Wilson, marketing manager for the postal service’s Louisiana District.
“Dropping his first name of ‘Negro’ and giving himself a last name of ‘Allen,’ he saddled up a blind horse and rode to freedom,” she said. “Freed by man, he was spiritually yoked to a simple message of ‘faith is redemption, faith is everlasting, faith is freedom.’ ”
The Rev. Otto Duncan, 8th District Church historian, recounted how Allen was appalled when he arrived in Philadelphia and saw how a Methodist Church there was discriminating against free Africans, as they were called then. He and others walked out and formed their own group which became the AME denomination. It now has thousands of churches and millions of members across the United States and the world.
In his sermon, Bishop McAllister, told how when last year, a racist white man shot and killed nine worshippers at a historic AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter hoped to spark a race war. Instead, the families of his victims publicly forgave him.
“Racism will not go away with the passage of legislation alone — there must be a change of heart,” McAllister said. “We are Christians. Our faith in God is stronger than hate,” he said, quoting some of the victim’s families.
The Rev. Marjorie Cobb Thomas, pastor of Greater Bethel AME Church of St. Francisville, said the meeting was so important to her that, “if I had had to walk all the way from New Roads I would be here. Richard Allen was well-deserving of the stamp because from New England to way down South, our church served the Underground Railroad. He was the founder of the freedom movement.”
The Rev. Bland Washington, whose church, Allen Chapel, is named for their founder, said Allen’s “service to the Lord and the things that he did by way of justice and fighting for social issues” has inspired others to do the same.
When asked how his congregation will react on Sunday, he smiled broadly and said, “We’ll stick our chest out — just a little bit.”
The Rev. Dr. Herman O. Kelly, Jr., pastor of Bethel AME and the event’s host, said he was “excited and humbled by this experience,” and he gave credit for organizing the event to his wife Linda and the Baton Rouge Post Office.
“This is historic,” Kelly said. “I’m thankful for all the people who attended to share this with us.”