For several decades, the legacy of Harriet Tubman was a footnote in the annals of American history. To some people, the legend of Tubman, a runaway slave who engineered the escape of more than 300 other slaves to freedom by way of the under-ground railroad, appeared more folktale than fact.

But recently, the U.S. Postal Service resurrected her spirit when it dedicated the Harriet Ross Tubman Philatelic Center at the main post office, Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street NE.

More than 300 guests, pedestrains and stamp collectors gathered outside the center to hear James V.P. Conway, deputy postmaster general, speak about the significance of the event. Inside, the determined, solemn image of Tubman, reincarnated on the face of a commemorative postage stamp, oversaw the proceedings.

"stamps are really tiny billboards that our country uses to tell the world what we think is important," Conway said. The stamp honoring Tubman, issued last year as the first in a Black Heritage series of stamps, "was designed to tell the world that American history is no longer the history of just some Americans."

During earlier years, the post office issued commemorative stamps of other black history figures at the request of the public, Conway said.

In 1973, a citizens advisory committee responsible for reviewing possible subjects for commemorative stamps, decided to go one step further by initiating an open-ended Black Heritage series, Conway said.

A year-long research effort was coordinated by committee member John Sawyer III, a school superintendent in one of suburban Chicago, Conway said. During its research, the committee came across the findings of a major research firm that had surveyed thousands of school children in several states to find out who their heroes were. The number choice was Harriet Tubman.

"the (research) company didn't believe its own data," Conway said.

The survey was done in other states. Again, Tubman was the first choice. Thus, on Feb. 1, 1978, Tubman became the first subject of Black Heritage USA. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the second when a stamp honoring him was issued Jan. 13, 1979.

Now Tubman, "one of the finest Americans in our nation's history," has won her place in that larger sphere of American history, said Conway, "not because she escaped from slavery but because her own freedom was not enough."

The philatelic center, which opened last October in a remodeled room in the main post office, was designed by architect Carlos Acosta and remodeled at a cost of $31,000, said Donalda Mosby, retail sales and service manager.