The United States Postal Service honored 12 pioneers of civil rights on a set of six 42¢ stamps issued Feb. 21, 2009. Among those featured was Joel Elias Spingarn, who was born May 17, 1875, in New York City.
Spingarn was a writer, educator, horticulturist and civil rights activist. After teaching at Columbia University (and losing his position because of his outspoken views), he joined the U.S. Army during World War I, achieving the rank of colonel.
His devotion to civil rights led him to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and serving on the board as one of the organization's first white leaders. He became the association's president in 1929, a position he held until his death 10 years later.
Spingarn created an endowment in 1914 for the Spingarn medal, in an effort highlight black achievement and combat negative social stereotypes. The first Spingarn medal was awarded to biologist Ernest E. Just in 1915; Just was honored on a 32¢ stamp issued Feb. 1, 1996 (Scott 3058).
The Spingarn medal is still awarded today. It is described by the NAACP as its highest honor, given annually to a man or woman of African descent and American citizenship for outstanding achievement.
Among those who have received the award are George Washington Carver (1923), Marian Anderson (1939), Thurgood Marshall (1946), Rosa Parks (1979), and Maya Angelou (1994).
The stamp honoring Spingarn (Scott 4384b) also shows J.R. Clifford (1848-1933), the first black attorney licensed in West Virginia, who fought against racial discrimination in cases before the state Supreme Court.