Thursday, January 24, 2013

African Americans are on the Money, too

African Americans are on the Money, too!
By Daphne Muse
      It is sometimes said that the history of a country is reflected in its money and like much of black history, the images of African Americans on US coins and currency remains a relatively obscure fact.  But African Americans are on U.S. money, too in ways that will both surprise and astonish most people. In the more than two hundred year history of this country, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson and Crispus Attucks are the only known African American’s whose images have ever appeared on money minted in the United States. The faces of Washington and Washington and Carver look up off U.S. half dollar coins minted between 1946 and 1951 and 1951 to 1954. Scientist, inventor and scholar Carver and pioneering educator and founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute Washington were honored for their roles in advancing the nation’s social and economic development. Barrier breaking Major League Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson appears on a silver dollar minted in 1997. Revolutionary War patriot and merchant Crispus Attucks appears on a silver dollar. In 1996, President Clinton enacted a Black Patriots Coin Law to commemorate African American contributions to the founding of America. The coin was struck in 1998, the 275th anniversary of the birth of Crispus Attucks.  Born in 1723, Attucks was 1723 – March 5, 1770) was the first of five people killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770 in Boston, Massachusetts.  He is recognized as the first martyr of the American Revolution and is the only Boston Massacre victim whose name is commonly remembered.
      The Booker T. Washington coin was issued to perpetuate his self-reliant ideals and teachings, and to construct what was hoped to be a lasting memorial to his work.  Three million of the five million coins authorized were minted and in August of 1951, the authority for the issue of the coin expired.  These coins were issued in much the same way as the John F. Kennedy, Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins were issued. 
      The Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial Association in conjunction with the George Washington Carver National Monument Foundation then sponsored a bill to honor artist, educator, agricultural chemist and peanut butter inventor George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington on one coin.  The bill may have failed, but for a proviso stating that the profits had to be used “to oppose the spread of Communism among Negroes in the interest of National defense.”
      Dr. Daniel Williams, archivist at Tuskegee laughed at the notion that the containing the image of Washington and Carver was issued to combat communism.  “My word, this nation certainly had more to worry about at that point in history than Negroes becoming Communists.” 
      In the thick of the McCarthy Era and afraid to appear soft on Communism, Congress endorsed the measure, which was signed by former President Harry S. Truman on September 1, 1951. The coin, containing the images of both Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, was issued at a time when several prominent African Americans, including world renowned novelist Langston Hughes, had been subpoenaed by the House on Un-American Activities, unfortunately, the coin failed to gain widespread popularity.  Hughes portrait now graces a 2002, thirty-four cents US stamp.
      Paper money bears the signatures of four African American men who served as Registers of the Treasury (Blanche K. Bruce, Judson W. Lyons, William T. Vernon, and James C. Napier) and one African American woman who served as Treasurer of the United States (Azie Taylor Morton).  In the mid-19th century there was a widespread use of slaves on Confederate and Southern states money.  Though not discussed in textbooks, that practice is well documented in Confederate Currency the Color of Money:  Images of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency with paintings by John W. Jones and edited by Gretchen Barbatsis (New Directions Publishing 2002).  “Confederate Currency the Color of Money…” was also a traveling exhibit of paintings by Jones that toured the US and came to the African American Library and Museum in Oakland in May of 2002.
      Currently out of general circulation, the Washington and Washington/Carver coins still can be found in numismatics (coin) shops and flea markets across the county.  When I mention these coins or other images of blacks on US money, the vast majority of people are dumbfounded.  My grandfather, Juandoff  J. Jones, gave me my first one in 1970. He had converted one of the Washington coins into a money clip.  On rare occasions, they pop up as change in transactions. Oakland-based conflict resolution consultant Nell Myhand noted that her mother received a Washington coin as change after paying for some dry cleaning in the early 80's.  The Washington and Washington Carver coins now range in value from $10.00 to $800.00, depending on when and where they were minted, and their condition.  The Robinson coin easily fetches a $700.00 asking price.  The Crispus Attucks coins appear at online auction sites for prices that range from $165.00- $189.00.
        Now housed mostly in private and institutional collections across the United States and around the world, these coins serve as a testimony to four Black men whose legacies still impact the lives of all Americans.  Who knows, in the future the image of Hip Hop Mogul and humanitarian Russell Simmons, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, public intellectual Dr. Cornel West, media mogul Oprah Winfrey or even you may well be on the money, too.

Daphne Muse
Copyright Oakland, CA 2006

A version of this was first published on the Business Page of the Oakland Tribune in 1991.