Making his stamp on black history


DELRAY BEACH – Al Ashley was only 5 years old when his father took him by the hand and led him up to the chapel at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama to participate in a monumental celebration.

Ashley watched as his father beamed with pride, tears welling up in his eyes, as the U.S. Postal Service and many notable African Americans celebrated the release of the Booker T. Washington postage stamp, the first one to feature an African American.

This day marked a historically significant occasion in the early 1940s, especially for a city like Tuskegee.

The city set the mark for African Americans' achievement by creating a community that nurtured its self sufficiency and produced brilliant minds that went on to make history, including Booker T. Washington, an honored resident of the city.

Since that emotionally charged day in April 1940, Ashley has collected every single postage stamp honoring an African-American hero, from Booker T. Washington in 1940 to Ella Fitzgerald in 2007.

The entire collection, along with the five coins featuring African-American contributors to American history, has traveled the country in a remarkable exhibit that is on display at the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach through Feb. 29.

Ashley's exhibit also includes a thrilling narrative detailing his experiences meeting nearly 25 of the 81 African Americans honored by the U.S. Postal Service, including:

• Jackie Robinson, the first African American major league baseball player;

• Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University;

• Joe Louis, one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions in history;

• Duke Ellington, the ambassador of jazz music;

• George Washington Carver, a renowned agricultural scientist.

"Dr. Carver treated me when I was a kid," Ashley recounted. "My brother took me up to the [George Washington Carver] museum to visit Dr. Carver after he noticed that I had ringworm on my head. Dr. Carver looked at my head, turned it a couple of times, went into the back room, and came back with some salve on his hand. He rubbed it onto my head and then walked us out saying, 'You will be fine, young man.'''

The young Ashley turned out to be more than fine. He went on to graduate from Texas Southern University before enjoying a fruitful career at the Stanford University Linear Accelerator Center.

While serving there, he was instrumental in designing a program for students in math, science and engineering that became the Summer Science Program. He earned a Presidential Award for his efforts.

Bearing witness to such a plethora of great minds who were making history was a common occurrence for residents of Tuskegee back in those days. The city was considered the Black Mecca for African-American greatness due to the influx of professional entertainers and intellectuals. They flocked to the city to trade wisdom and entertain the wounded veterans at the only VA hospital in the country that welcomed African Americans.

Nationally celebrated radio personality Tom Joyner also grew up in Tuskegee during an era when African Americans across the country were awakening to their sense of self worth and fighting for their civil rights.

"When I was a kid every notable black scholar, entertainer, activist, preacher, etc., made a stop in Tuskegee," Joyner said. "I remember seeing Dr. King and members of the Black Panthers…So many remarkable people were residents of Tuskegee, such as Tuskegee airmen Benjamin O. Davis and Chappie James, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington.

"The debate coach Denzel Washington portrayed in [the feature film] The Great Debators, Melvin B. Tolson, lived in Tuskegee and taught at the college," Joyner added. "Our town was very rich with accomplished African Americans and it made us kids feel like there was nothing that we couldn't do."

When asked if he remembered the day that Booker T. Washington was honored as the first African American to appear on a postage stamp, Joyner joked, "How old do you think I am? Just because I love black history and present a Black History Fact every day on the Tom Joyner Morning Show doesn't mean I was there for every event! You have to ask my older brother, Albert, about something that happened in 1940!"

No, you won't have to call up Uncle Albert or travel back in time to get a personal glimpse of a tribute to our heritage. Ashley's exhibit and lecture, showcased at the Spady Museum, is going into its second month of exhibition, due to its popularity.

"We have had a great response with this exhibit with many visitors coming out to see it," said Brandy Brownlee, the Spady Museum educator. "We have found that young and old alike in many cases learned something new that they did not know. Often for our older visitors, many of whom collected stamps and coins, it was a way to reminisce by looking back on people they remember during their lifetime. For younger visitors, who are still learning about much of the African American heroes, it brings to life what they are reading in their textbooks."
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