US Stamps

What about those Confederate symbols lurking in our stamp albums?

Apr 28, 2021, 7 PM

Since the abhorrent murder of nine African-American churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. on June 17, calls have spread across the United States for symbols of the old Confederacy to be removed from public places.

This backlash is understandable. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere have spurred a growing consciousness of racism’s pernicious effects in our society and reignited a national conversation about how we deal with race, 150 years after the end of the Civil War and half a century after the Civil Rights movement. In that context, symbols are important.

Stamp collectors need look no further than their own albums to find symbols relating to the old Confederate States of America. Besides stamps and postal history of the C.S.A. itself, there are U.S. stamps that portray icons of the Confederacy:

    – The 1936-37 Army issue, of which the 4¢ gray (Scott 788) honored Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson;

    – The 1970 6¢ Stone Mountain commemorative (Scott 1408), which shows the hillside monument depicting Lee, Jackson and Confederate president Jefferson Davis;

    –The 1976 13¢ State Flags sheet of 50 (Scott 1633-1682), which shows the Confederate battle flag incorporated into the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi (Georgia’s flag was changed in 2001).

Tens of thousands of U.S. collectors have dutifully added these and other stamps to their albums over the years without giving too much thought to what they signify. Perhaps it is time to think about them again.

Many whites have argued that the “Stars and Bars,” the old Confederate battle flag, is just a symbol of Southern pride, tradition and rebellion against Yankee hegemony. The flag has flown in college dorm rooms, on bumper stickers, and on the roof of a beat-up ’69 Dodge Charger from the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

For many blacks, however, that flag represents something far more sinister: a throwback to slavery, deadly racial oppression and denial of civil rights. A parallel has been drawn to the flag of Nazi Germany, which exterminated millions of Jews and other minorities during World War II.

Southern politicians, after refuting that equation for decades, have now come around and called for removal of the Confederate flag, as well as of statues of Confederate figures that adorn public buildings such as the U.S. Capitol. Major retailers and media companies have called for dumping Confederate memorabilia, even for scrubbing the Confederate flag from “The Dukes of Hazzard” car.

Should we expunge our albums, too? No, we should not.

Stamp collectors are students of history. We know, better than most, how complex, nuanced and multifaceted history is, and how the waves of human adventure and conflict wash back and forth.

Our stamp collections reveal in intimate detail how history is often ugly, even brutal: wars, invasions, occupations, persecution, imprisonment, censorship, retaliation, the alternating triumphs of good and evil – all these are well documented in the pages of our albums.

Perhaps because we love our hobby so much, we seem to have a special ability to accept history in both its glory and its ugliness. Whether we are looking at stamps of Hitler’s Third Reich, Europe’s colonial empires, Russia’s or China’s civil wars, Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia, South Africa’s Boer War, Latin America’s border conflicts, or, yes, the American Civil War, we see the grand narratives of human tragedy reduced to little bits of colored paper, neatly arranged on an album page.

This is not to say we trivialize history: rather, we have the ability to grasp the full sweep of history and appreciate the impact that historical events have on the lives of ordinary people.

Hopefully, as a result, we have gotten better at learning from history and teaching others about it, too.

Some years ago, when Ken Lawrence, the well-known philatelic writer, researcher and Linn's columnist, sold his stunning collection of Nazi-era postal history, I had the privilege of writing about the sale for The New York Times.

Ken had built up his collection of postal history and related ephemera to help document the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. Every item told a story.

Many were heart breaking, such as the piece some have called the single most important item of Holocaust postal history: a sacred Hebrew bible scroll reused as a parcel wrapper by a German soldier.

Ken exhibited his collection throughout the United States, at schools, public libraries and community centers. His aim was to counter the white-supremacist kooks who were going around denying that the Holocaust had ever happened. Ken used our hobby to prove the deniers wrong.

After World War II, symbols of Nazism were banned in Germany and other European countries. Collectors of Nazi flags, belt buckles and the like were forced to give up or hide their collections. However, an exception was made for stamps, coins, paper money and postal history.

It is, and has always been, legal to buy, sell and exhibit stamps with swastikas and little Hitler heads in Germany. The idea is that banning these items would not only be impractical, but also immoral. Stamps and coins are legitimate collectibles outside the arena of Nazi-worship. To ban them would be to punish the wrong people.

History can’t be erased, but it can be learned from, and the view then, and now, is that philatelists and numismatists are wise enough and responsible enough to be entrusted with carrying on that learning. To deny history is to risk forgetting it and allowing its ugliest symbols to be hijacked out of context by future extremists.

So, leave the Stone Mountain stamp and the 1976 Georgia State Flag stamp where they are. After all, they lie just a few pages away from stamps illustrating other dark chapters, such as the forced Indian relocations to the Oklahoma territory (Scott 972). Our history has been ugly in more ways than one.

In the end, such stamps are as important to our understanding of history as the ones honoring Dr. Martin Luther King (Scott 1771) or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1233). The two sides may not be morally equivalent, but without the context of the former, the significance of the latter would be greatly diminished.