THE NEXT TIME Elvin Wilkins of Washington is asked to speak on black history, the chances are he'll discuss the man who wrote what was often called the "Negro National Anthem."
That's because Wilkins, a Postal Service police officer, is a stamp collector specializing in stamps honoring black Americans.
And Wilkins, along with many blacks, will take a special pride in the commemorative that the Postal Service will issue next month to honor James Weldon Johnson, the man who wrote the lyrics for "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the inspirational song that was a precursor of many civil rights songs.
The stamp is the 11th in a series that the Postal Service began in 1978 to honor black leaders. The stamps are what transformed Wilkins, a native of North Carolina, from a person who worked around stamps into a philatelic evangelist.
The police officer speaks regularly to groups in Washington about black history, and he uses displays of the U.S. Black Heritage stamp series to make his points.
Wilkins would be the first to admit that his speeches would have been pretty barren in the past. It wasn't until 1940, 93 years after the first U.S. stamp appeared, that a black was the subject of a U.S. stamp.
That year Booker T. Washington was one of five educators honored in the 35-stamp Famous American series. A few others were honored subsequently, such as Frederick Douglass on a 1967 25-cent stamp, but minorities remained rare on U.S. stamps even after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 galvanized public concern over the treatment of blacks.
It wasn't until 1978 that the Postal Service launched the series that brought Wilkins into the stamp-collecting fold. The series has become a "Who's Who of Black Leaders," honoring, among others, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Whitney M. Young, Jackie Robinson, Scott Joplin, Carter G. Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune.
"These are the forerunners of our time, and it's important to see that they are not forgotten," says Wilkins.
When a new stamp honoring a black American is issued, Wilkins researches the person's life and adds him to his exhibit.
The man he will be studying this month, James Weldon Johnson, was more than an early civil rights pioneer. Johnson, whose stamp will be issued February 2 in Nashville, Tenn., won praise as an educator, diplomat, lawyer, author and lyricist.
Two bars of his best-known song appear on the 22-cent commemorative stamp with his portrait. The stamp will be dedicated in ceremonies at Fisk University where Johnson served as professor of creative literature from 1930 until his death in 1938.
Johnson, who collaborated with his composer brother, John, on 200 songs, also served as U.S. Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He was the first black to be admitted to the bar in Florida and served for years as secretary of the NAACP.
The deadline for requests for first-day cancellations of the James Weldon Johnson commemorative is March 3. Collectors supplying their own envelopes and the stamps should send them to: Customer- Affixed Envelopes, James Weldon Johnson Stamp, Postmaster, Nashville, TN 37202-9991. The Postal Service will affix stamps for up to 50 envelopes per collector at: James Weldon Johnson Stamp, Postmaster, Nashville, TN 37202-9992.
The Australian Embassy, 1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW, will be the site for another first-day ceremony Tuesday, January 26, when the U.S. and Australia jointly issue similar stamps honoring the 200th anniversary of the European settlement of Australia.
The event, which is open to the public, will mirror a similar ceremony in Sydney in which several stamp folders and cards that each country has produced to display the stamps will be released.
All the products offer variations of the cartoon-styled American eagle and koala featured on the joint commemoratives. Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant, a native of Australia, designed the U.S. folder and cards.
To accommodate U.S. collectors, the Postal Service will affix the Australian stamps as well as the U.S. commemorative to first-day envelopes. It will also sell the Australian stamps and that country's commemorative cards through its philatelic sales outlets.
Collectors seeking only the U.S. commemorative and affixing their own stamps to their envelopes should send them to: Customer-Affixed Envelopes, Australia Stamps, Postmaster, Washington, DC 20066-9991.
The Postal Service will affix its stamp on up to 50 covers per collector at a price of 22 cents each at: Australia Stamps, Postmaster, Washington, DC 20066-9992.
Up to 50 covers of the Australia stamp with that country's first-day cancellation will be sold at a price of 27 cents per stamp to collectors who send envelopes plus a stamped self-addressed envelope for the return of the covers. These should be requested from: Australian First Day Cancellation, Washington, DC 20066-9991.
Covers bearing both countries' stamps can be obtained for 49 cents each for individuals sending their covers to U.S./Australia Combination Cover, Postmaster, Washington, DC 20066-9994. The deadline for all requests is February 25.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.