US Stamps

A tale of two first-day ceremonies: Maya Angelou and Civil War

Apr 27, 2021, 11 AM

This panoramic view of the Appomattox stamp event taken by Mark Saunders, a Postal Service public affairs specialist, shows how impressive the attendance was.


There seemed to be no question that the Maya Angelou forever stamp would produce a huge first-day event on April 7.

After all, the cash-strapped United States Postal Service had done something rare for a Washington, D.C., first-day event: It had rented the 1,700-seat Warner Theater for the ceremony.

A public spat over whose quotation was on the stamp had given the stamp tremendous national exposure before the ceremony.

First Lady Michelle Obama had signed up for the event, along with a wide array of national figures who wanted to honor the late poet.

Two days later, the Postal Service headed south for another first-day ceremony, this time in the town of Appomattox, Va., population 2,043.

Officials dedicated two forever stamps there April 9 to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

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What was surprising was not the success of the Angelou event.

It was the huge turnout for the Appomattox ceremony and the long lines that collectors reported of people buying the Civil War stamps.

A panoramic view of the Appomattox event taken by Mark Saunders, a Postal Service public affairs specialist, was impressive.

The photograph looked like a scene Mathew Brady might have seen on a Civil War battlefield.

Moreover, the national media, which had delighted in the flap over the Angelou stamp, had not reported on the event in southside Virginia even though the National Park Service estimated it attracted 8,218 people.

Here’s yet another surprise.

Initial sales of the Angelou and Civil War stamps were about the same, according to numbers provided by postal officials.

The Civil War stamps raised more than $22,100 at the Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park plus another $3,900 at the town’s post office during the period marking the surrender anniversary.

Sales of the Angelou stamp in Washington’s Warner Theater hit $27,218.35.

According to two Washington collectors, who have been attending first-day events since the 1980s, sales at Appomattox overwhelmed postal officials who initially had brought between 15,000 and 16,000 stamps with them.

"The line to buy stamps was about 150 [people] long and stayed that long most of the day," said Rollin Berger, editor of the Graebner Gazette, a first-day chronicle.

Foster Miller, another Washington area collector who has attended between 200 and 300 first-day ceremonies, said unlike the D.C. first-day events, the clerks at Appomattox were new to first-day events and that may have slowed sales and canceling of covers.

Only two were there to sell stamps and two to cancel them, he said. That was well below the numbers at most Washington first-day events.

There were only about 300 chairs around the stage. That was not surprising, Miller said, because a park official told him daily attendance at Appomattox is about 100 visitors a day.

"There were some stamp collectors in attendance, but most were those interested in the Civil War," Miller said.

"I think most of the people attending the [first-day] ceremony, at least those standing, saw something was happening and just stayed to watch out of curiosity," said Berger.

What they got was a first-day ceremony than lasted about 15 minutes, according to Miller, followed by a series of speeches.

"Given that this was the 150th anniversary of one of the major events in U.S. history, and given the difficulty finding a hotel room at a reasonable price within a half hour of Appomattox, I wasn’t surprised by the attendance," said Miller.

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