In February, the students in Jackson Davis’s fifth-grade class were asked to write an essay about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Jackson, 11, chose to study a man known as York, William Clark’s slave who traveled with the pair on their storied cross-country voyage.
As he began his research, some troubling questions arose: What was his first name? Was he freed after the journey?
“Something wasn’t right,” Jackson said. “Nobody knew anything about him.”
Jackson’s curiosity grew while he was getting stamps at the post office with his mother. It was Black History Month, and the walls were filled with stamps of historic African Americans, yet York was nowhere to be found.
“I think this really puzzled, and maybe upset, Jackson,” his mother, Cyn Davis, said. “He kept asking why Lewis and Clark had their own stamps and Sacagawea had a coin but York didn’t get anything.”
Now, Jackson, who lives in Silver Spring and attends the Lowell School in Northwest, is spearheading a campaign to get York an official Black Heritage stamp with the U.S. Postal Service and the accompanying recognition he thinks York deserves.
Stamps, it turns out, are a tricky business. Of the 50,000 average annual submissions for stamps, including first-time and repeat proposals, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee recommends only about 25 to the postmaster general. The William Holmes McGuffey Historical Society of Youngstown, Ohio, has been trying for 50 years to get its namesake a stamp, to no avail.
The process is lengthy, too. It takes three years for the committee to accept a proposal, design the stamp and distribute it to the public.
But Jackson might have a real shot. In March, he received a letter from the committee notifying him that the York stamp is “under consideration.” He has also secured support from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and, as of Tuesday, Vice President Biden.
“It’s important to remember the strengths and stories of those who have come before us,” Biden wrote in a letter to Jackson.
Van Hollen has become, in some ways, an advisor for the project and invited Jackson to his Rockville office to discuss campaign strategy last week.
“I think people really believe in what I’m doing,” Jackson told the congressman. “I see people cheering this on, and now I just need more of them.”
Jackson has taken his initiative to Facebook. His fan page, “Vote 4 York Black Heritage Stamp 2013,” has more than 1,300 fans and includes regular campaign progress reports.
His posts include status updates detailing his current mission of writing President Obama one letter every day of July asking for his support. Jackson said that although he would like to get a “face-to-face meeting,” he would settle for a mention on the president’s Facebook page.
Many stamps require a collaboration between a spokesperson and an artist. For that, Jackson has reached out to sculptor Ed Hamilton, whose 2003 statue of York can be seen at Riverfront Plaza in Louisville.
Hamilton, 64, said this is not the first time someone has tried to get York a stamp. He was approached several years ago, but the proposal was not selected.
“Us old folks tried and tried and couldn’t do it,” he said, “so maybe it takes an 11-year-old to get something done around here. I’m in Jackson’s corner, that’s for sure.”
Although the committee operates furtively, it is planning to meet in the fall to discuss stamps for 2014.
Therefore, Jackson won’t be slowing down. In September alone, he will speak to Howard University’s freshmen class about his social media campaign, contribute an article to the Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections quarterly newsletter and send an introductory video to history professors at all the historically black colleges and universities with the request that they include his project in their itineraries.
“Stamps are the most visible form of art out there,” Jackson said. “What better way to honor someone we’ve forgotten?”