Each February, the United States recognizes, remembers and celebrates the important people and events that have shaped the African-American experience in our country. To commemorate Black History Month this year, we’re celebrating three iconic pieces of American coinage that tout, highlight or otherwise touch on the legacy of the African-American story that is so integral to the narrative of our nation as a whole.
American Liberty 225th Anniversary Gold Coin
To celebrate its 225th anniversary in 2017, the United States Mint released the American Liberty 225th Anniversary Gold Coin. Not only does the coin celebrate a milestone in tenure and legacy for the U.S. Mint, but it also serves as the first time Lady Liberty is explicitly depicted as African-American on an official U.S. coin, a significant turning point in its own right. Further adding to the coin’s esteem, the 225th Anniversary piece was recently named the World Money Fair’s “Best Gold Coin” of 2019.
In the years since the Mint first opened its doors, Lady Liberty has graced the faces of precious metal pieces in varying forms and fashions. In the early days, Liberty was often influenced by the features and appearances of European women and was accompanied by traditionally European symbols. Over time, Liberty has become more reflective of America’s diverse and ethnically rich identity and coin artists have moved toward incorporating emblems more representative of North America into their designs – like cotton, wheat or event Native American garb – rather than solely relying on traditionally European imagery. As the Mint points out, Liberty has increasingly grown into a “more fully developed icon of our national identity,” and has arguably taken on her most modern rendition yet in the artistry of the 2017 225th Anniversary coin.
The gold Anniversary coin contains one troy ounce of .9999 fine 24-karat gold and bears a “W” mintmark indicating production at the West Point Mint. The nearly unprecedented attention to detail in the coin’s high-relief images, coupled with the brilliant mirror-like finish inherent with Proof coins, make it a standout piece in its own right. The high-relief detail is also seen on the coin’s rim, where the words “225th Anniversary” are struck in raised lettering – a unique feature that has earned the coin much praise so far.
1995 $5 Civil War Gold Coin MS70
Resulting from an aggressively festering disagreement over the enslavement of African-Americans in the country, the Civil War is one of the most infamous and significant events in United States history.
In April 1861, shortly after Abraham Lincoln was sworn-in as the 16th President of the United States, the Civil War officially broke out between Northern states who were loyal to the Union, and in their view, faithful to the U.S. Constitution, and secessionist Confederate States in the South who were loyal to the idea of their states’ right to uphold slavery.
The war’s intense fighting, which took place primarily in the South, led to the deaths of approximately 620,000 to 750,000 people over the course of its four-year span, in addition to destroying much of the South’s infrastructure. The war ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
The Civil War and fall of the Confederate States of America ushered in the abolishment of slavery and an era of “Reconstruction” in the United States. During this time, a slow but steady restoration of national unity ensued, along with a slew of Constitutional amendments and legislative acts proclaiming the guarantee of civil rights for the four million newly freed slaves.
In the late 20th century, long after the Civil War had ended, sweeping commercial and housing development took hold in much of the American South. As the sprawling construction crept closer and closer to significant Civil War battlefields – especially in the 1990s – the need for funding the preserve these historic sites could no longer be ignored. As a result, Congress approved a three-piece commemorative coin set that would not only honor the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War but would raise funds to preserve the conflict’s historic places. As with all official U.S. commemorative coin programs, surcharges from coin sales help fund organizations and projects benefitting the public. In the case of the Civil War Battlefield coins, proceeds help support the Civil War Battlefield Foundation and its efforts to preserve the irreplaceable battlefields of one of our country's most notable conflicts.
The three-coin set includes a copper-nickel half-dollar, silver dollar, and gold half-eagle, all issued in both uncirculated and Proof versions. The coins were initially released on March 31, 1995.
Pre-1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle
It may seem surprising to see this iconic pre-1933 piece on the list, but after recently discovering an interesting tidbit regarding the inspiration for the coin’s image of Liberty, we couldn’t help but include it.
According to CoinWeek:
William E. Hagans, who spent a number of years researching the life and work of Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920), held a key piece of information that helped numismatic scholars determine just who it was that Saint-Gaudens used as a model on his famed $20 gold piece. The clue came in the form of a sketch, made extemporaneously in 1897, that shows the world-weary sculptor sitting on the edge of the model’s stand. In the background lies Harriette Eugenia “Hettie” Anderson, an African-American model who Saint-Gaudens referred to as a woman with the figure of a goddess. It was already known that Saint-Gaudens used her as the model for the figure of Victory in his monument to Sherman. By this time, Hettie had posed for a number of artists in New York, including Saint-Gaudens’ protégé Adolph Weinman. But her connection to the double eagle was scarcely known outside of Saint-Gaudens’ closest family, friends and colleagues – and his family, at least, tried to keep it this way. Homer Saint-Gaudens, the artist’s son, edited her out of his father’s unfinished autobiography. In drawing connections to Hettie and the double eagle, Hagan solved a nearly century old mystery that was hiding in plain sight. Ten years after the Supreme Court established a Constitutional basis for separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson and two years before the National Negro Committee convenes (leading to the founding of the NAACP), Hettie Anderson, an African-American model from South Carolina, became the iconic symbol of Liberty on America’s most enduring coin. A design that prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to write that Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle “is the best coin that has been struck for two thousand years… [a coin that] will serve as a model for future coin makers….”
We are proud to celebrate the remarkable achievements of our fellow Americans working to advance the legacy of the African-American community in the United States and hope you will join us in celebrating Black History Month all February-long!