Stamp will honor Philadelphia's Richard Allen, a founding father of America

Bishops of the A.M.E. Church, which marks its 200th anniversary this year, are seen in an 1876 engraving. The depiction of Richard Allen on the postal stamp is based on the engraving of Allen at the center.
Bishops of the A.M.E. Church, which marks its 200th anniversary this year, are seen in an 1876 engraving. The depiction of Richard Allen on the postal stamp is based on the engraving of Allen at the center. (Photo courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia)
Posted: January 25, 2016

There were few things the seemingly indefatigable Richard Allen was unable to do.

Born into slavery in Delaware in 1760, he worked tirelessly, purchased his freedom and came to Philadelphia, founded a civil organization, founded a church, and then an entire religious denomination.

He ran a successful chimney-sweep business (working on President Washington's chimneys, among others).

He sought to end slavery, provided refuge for those escaping its chains, and organized black conventions. He wrote powerful political pamphlets and an autobiography. He preached and gave speeches. And he was finally laid to rest here in 1831.

Now his portrait will be on a stamp.

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church Allen opened in 1794 and the first home of the A.M.E. denomination he founded in 1816, the U.S. Postal Service will formally unveil its Richard Allen Black Heritage stamp, the 39th stamp in a series honoring African American leaders and "culture-shapers whose lives changed history."

The ceremony is timed to kick off the A.M.E. church's bicentennial year and, by coincidence, comes less than two weeks before Allen's 256th birthday, Feb. 14.

Dignitaries, A.M.E. bishops, choirs, singers, and politicians will all attend, said Mother Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler. School groups from as far away as Ohio will be there and A.M.E. officials are coming in from around the country to the church at Sixth and Lombard Streets.

Interest in the event has been so great, a community painting day for a mural celebrating Allen and the A.M.E. anniversary had to be postponed for two weeks.

"I've been overwhelmed by the response," Tyler said. If weather permits, he is expecting upward of 1,500 to gather at Mother Bethel to honor Allen.

"Richard Allen embodies the spirit of Philadelphia: scrappy, came from nothing, and built a tremendous legacy," Tyler said.

"For a black person, at his time, to save enough money and buy your freedom, that would have been enough for a lifetime. But no. He built a church and created the first denomination. But even then he wasn't satisfied."

Allen sought endlessly to free the nation and its Africans from the choke hold of slavery. Despairing of that possibility, he pushed various emigration plans.

When such a plan was opposed by a majority of Philadelphia's black community, Allen dropped it.

And toward the end of his life, he explained why he was planting his stake in the United States:

"This land which we have watered with our tears and our blood is now our mother country," he said, and no one was going to push him out.

For historian Richard S. Newman, director of the Library Company of Philadelphia and author of Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, Allen's story is the "story of modern American democracy" and its foundations.

Allen and his great ally, Absalom Jones, founded the Free African Society in 1787, Newman noted, the first black civic organization in the United States. The society supported indigent Africans, provided for proper funerals, and established leadership, community, and even political identity.

Members of the society became founding members of Mother Bethel and of Jones' African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Allen and Jones and their congregations were critical in establishing the church as a hub of African American civil, political, and religious life.

The Free African Society and the churches, plus Allen's political activities in opposition to slavery and racist practices, set the stage for generations of political activism.

"Richard Allen is his generation's Martin Luther King Jr.," said Newman. "He is the first great African American civil rights figure in the United States."

The church he established helped Africans "define themselves into American political life."

For Tyler, who in recent years has been on the front lines of numerous civil rights battles, Allen's significance is profound: "He laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement."

Jacqueline Dupont-Walker, who serves as director of the A.M.E. social action commission, and who was instrumental in pressing the postal service to embrace an Allen stamp, noted that the A.M.E. church has remained heavily involved in civil rights activities.

"The Free African Society was actually the first civil rights [organization]," she said. "It inspired the second Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks was A.M.E. She always said the spirit with which she did what she did was inspired by her service in the A.M.E. church."

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594@SPSalisbury

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