CYNTHIA KING drove from her home in Stamford, Conn., for the ceremony at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church honoring the first day of the U.S. Postal Service's Richard Allen forever stamp.
"This is a historic moment in time," said King, 62, historiographer of the AME church's first district, which includes the region from Boston to Philadelphia. "I had to be here."
The stamp is being released in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the 1816 conference at which Allen called for other African American Methodist ministers to form an independent African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Tuesday's noon ceremony included performances by choirs from Mother Bethel and the Postal Service, by mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges, and by Bobby Hill, 14, who sang for Pope Francis last fall.
Joshua D. Colin, a Postal Service vice president, told the story of Allen's life, then unveiled a huge image of the Allen stamp about 12:45 p.m. The crowd responded with a gentle roar of approval and a standing ovation.
The Postal Service choir then led the packed church in a spirited version of the pop song "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang.
Bishops from AME churches around the country offered prayers and words of wisdom.
Businessman and civil-rights activist Vernon Jordan Jr., the master of ceremonies, quipped that he'd been asked to host because "I have standing, and I'm a lifelong member of the AME Church."
Brenda Skinner of Freehold, N.J., left her home at 9 a.m. for the ceremony. After securing a seat in the second-floor sanctuary, she had time to buy several sheets of Richard Allen stamps in the first-floor Fellowship Hall.
"This is my first time at Mother Bethel," said Skinner, adding that she was proud that the stamp honors Allen. "He stood for determination and endurance."
Allen was born into slavery on Feb. 14, 1760, on an estate owned by Philadelphian Benjamin Chew.
Allen and a brother, who were believed to have been sold to a plantation owner in Delaware, both worked to buy their freedom as young men.
Allen became a licensed minister and was asked to preach to black worshipers at St. George's United Methodist Church in Old City.He founded Mother Bethel after he and the Rev. Absalom Jones led a walkout from St. George's after the church began to restrict blacks to a rear balcony.
On Tuesday, Richard Lawrence, an eighth-generation descendant of Allen's, spoke of the issues facing African Americans today.
Lawrence, 44, an ophthalmologist, began by speaking the names of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, all African Americans who died after encounters with police officers.
He said the current generation would do well to study Allen's activism, not only founding the AME denomination but also working to abolish slavery and aiding the sick during Philadelphia's yellow-fever epidemic of 1793.
"He gave voice to the voiceless and the suppressed, who were not seen as human or deserving of God's love and salvation," said Lawrence, who lives and works near Atlanta.
Also present were Lawrence's aunt V. Yvonne Studevan, 71, and his great-aunt Katharine Dockens, 94.
Temple University religion professor Nyasha Junior said at the ceremony that Allen's second wife, Sarah, an abolitionist and missionary, had an important role in establishing Mother Bethel.
"Too often, the roles of women who were just as active are not acknowledged," she said.
Mayor Kenney said he was "just in awe to be standing here in this pulpit. I'm glad to be here to honor this stamp. But it's a shame it took so long.
"The stories of Richard Allen and others were ripped from the history books because there were those who didn't want children to know of their accomplishments. Because, if they did, then everyone would have to be equal."
Kenney said he didn't learn about many African American leaders and educators while growing up in Philadelphia - not even about the educator and activist Octavius V. Catto, who was killed in 1871 as he tried to urge African Americans to vote.
"This is not African American history, this is American history," Kenney told the overflow crowd.
Meredith Elementary School teacher Tamarah Rash brought the 34 members of her third-grade class to the ceremony.
"I teach social studies, and I'm a proud African American, and I feel that my students should be exposed to some of our strong black leaders," Rash said. "Meredith is only a couple of blocks from here, and some of my students didn't know the church was here."