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African-Americans on six designs
By Ginger Rapsus
December 05, 2017

This year, a $100 gold coin was minted  featuring an African-American Miss Liberty. Liberty has been depicted over the years as a matron, a schoolgirl, seated, standing and walking. But this 2017 depiction of Liberty is a first.

How many living, not allegorical, African-Americans have appeared on United States coins? There have been at least six. Consider collecting the set.

Silver half dollars honoring Booker T. Washington were struck from 1946-1951. His daughter had urged the minting of these coins as an inspiration and a way to perpetuate his teachings. Washington headed the Tuskegee Institute and wrote an autobiography, “Up From Slavery.”

Black artist Isaac Scott Hathaway designed this coin. The portrait of Washington was based on a life mask made by Hathaway. The reverse depicted the Hall of Fame at New York University, and a log cabin, with the inscription “from slave cabin to Hall of Fame.” The coins were struck at all three Mints – Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco – from 1946-1951. Mintage figures were robust at first, with the 1946-P having a figure of over one million. Mintage dropped off in later years, with only 12,004 minted of the 1949-PDS, the 1950-P and D, and the 1951-D and S. Not all of these coins were distributed, and many were placed in circulation. Despite the low mintages of the later years, these coins are not difficult to find in Mint State and sell for rather low prices.

Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were honored with another commemorative half dollar, minted from 1951-1954, the last of the classic commemoratives. Also designed by Hathaway, these coins were not popular with collectors. The design was not particularly beautiful, especially the reverse, which showed a map of the 48 United States (and did not include Delaware). Many of these coins were eventually melted.

 All three Mints struck these half dollars from 1951-1954, with the high point being the 1952-P. These coins are easily obtainable despite the low mintage of some of the issues.

Two coins depicting baseball star Jackie Robinson were minted in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s integrating Major League baseball. The silver dollar shows Robinson sliding home, while the $5 gold coin shows his portrait, with a baseball on the reverse and the inscription “legacy of courage.” The silver coin was struck at San Francisco and the gold at West Point.

These two coins, despite the popularity of baseball, had very low mintages, with the uncirculated gold coin having only 5,174 minted. A “Legacy set” was available, including the gold coin, a pin, and a replica baseball card.

Crispus Attucks, killed in the 1770 Boston Massacre, appears on a 1998 Black Patriots silver dollar. A portion of the charge for the coin would go toward a Black Patriots Memorial in Washington DC. The reverse of this coin shows a black patriot family, taken from the proposed memorial. Some of these dollars were packaged for young collectors; others were part of a set with four stamps featuring four famous African-Americans: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Salem Poor, and Benjamin Banneker. Uncirculated and proof coins were minted at San Francisco.

Collectors of state quarters are familiar with the Washington D.C. coin depicting Duke Ellington by his piano. Coins were struck at Philadelphia and Denver, with clad and silver proofs struck at San Francisco. In 2017, the D.C. National Parks quarter featured Frederick Douglass. This coin was struck for circulation and also in proof, with five-ounce bullion pieces also minted.

Little Rock Central High School desegregation was remembered on 2007 silver dollars, with the coin showing the feet of the “Little Rock Nine” students and the feet of a soldier escorting them. The reverse showed the school as it appeared in 1957. Uncirculated and proof coins were minted in Philadelphia. Some of these coins were packaged with a bronze medal.

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was commemorated on a 2014 silver dollar. The obverse design shows three people taking part in a march; the reverse depicts three flames representing three freedoms: freedom of education, freedom to vote and freedom to control one’s own destiny. This flame design was inspired by a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ”Water can never drown the fire of freedom.” These dollars were struck at Philadelphia, uncirculated and proof, with low mintages. Only 24,720 uncirculated dollars were struck and 61,992 of the proof.

Such a collection would not be complete without the famous anti-slavery Hard Times token of 1838. The dramatic design shows a female slave in chains and the motto “Am I not a woman and a sister.” There are also tokens from the same year depicting a male slave and the motto “Am I not a man and a brother,” but this variety is quite rare, with only a handful of specimens known.

The 2017 $100 gold coin was also minted in .999 fine silver as a medal, a cheaper way to obtain the portrait of Liberty. As a set, all designs are obtainable, historical and honor America.

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