Dr. Sol Taylor

African Americans on U.S. Commemorative Coins

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, June 28, 2008

ost Americans are probably unaware of the various commemorative coins issued over the years by the United States Mint. The catalogs break them down into two series: the "early" series from 1892-1954 and the "modern" series starting 1982 and continuing annually since then.
    In the early series there were two commemorative half dollars issued specifically honoring African Americans. The first one was issued in 1946, honoring Booker T. Washington, and the funds from the sale of the coins (there were three issued each year from 1946-1951) were for memorials to Booker T. Washington.
    As was the case with all of the early series, the coins were sponsored by a citizens group to honor a person or event and the funds over the cost of the production of the coins were for a specific memorial or fund. The mintages for the series were:
Half Dollars
Top: Booker T. Washington half dollar, 1946-1951. Bottom: Carver-Washington half dollar, 1951-1954.
1946-(P) 700,546
1946-D 50,000
1946-S 500,279
1947-(P) 6,000
1947-D 6,000
1947-S 6,000
1948-(P) 8,005
1948-D 8,005
1948-S 8,005
1949-(P) 6,004
1949-D 6,004
1949-S 6.004
1950-(P) 6,004
1950-D 6,004
1950-S 62,091
1951-(P) 210,082
1951-D 7,004
1951-S 7,004

    Sets of three coins of each year were sold in cardboard folders with inscriptions of the life of Booker T. Washington and other inscriptions. Excess coins that were not sold often found their way into general circulation at face value, since they were the same size and silver content of the current half dollars. Thus, circulated specimens can be found for sale from time to time. Many of the mint-condition coins show a dark streak across the reverse from the cardboard holder in which they were packaged.
    The coin was designed by Isaac Scott Hathaway, and the reverse inscription says, "From log cabin to Hall of Fame."
    The only other commemorative honoring African Americans in the early series was the 1951-1954 George Washington Carver/Booker T. Washington half dollar. They were produced to raise funds "to oppose the spread of communism among Negroes in the interest of national defense."
    The mintages were:
1951-(P) 20,108
1951-D 10,004
1951-S 10,004
1952-(P) 1,006,292
1952-D 8,006
1952-S 8,006
1953-(P) 8,003
1953-D 8,003
1953-S 88,020
1954-(P) 12,006
1954-D 12,006
1954-S 42,024

    As with the previous issue, some unsold coins wound up in general circulation, especially the higher-mintage coins.
    This was the last of the early commemorative series. No new commemorative was authorized and issued until 1982.
    The modern series differs from the early series in that coins are issued every year and often in denominations of half dollar, $1 silver and $5 gold. The coins were strictly the product of the United States Mint and the proceeds (over face value and production costs) went to the Treasury or in some cases, such as the Olympics, to the U.S. Olympic Committee. In certain instances, excess funds went for a specific monument, restoration, or public project.
    In 1997, a commemorative silver dollar was issued in honor of Jackie Robinson, the first African American Major League Baseball player who started with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. A silver dollar was issued in Philadelphia (no mintmark) in 1997 in 90-percent silver in uncirculated condition. A total of 30,180 pieces were sold. A proof version was struck in San Francisco with a mintage of 110,302. It shows one his famous slides into second base. The reverse features a scroll of the 50th anniversary of his entry into major league baseball and his rookie of the year award and the Baseball Hall of Fame nomination.
Little Rock     A companion $5 gold piece was issued by the Philadelphia mint with a low mintage of 5,174 pieces. It is one of the scarcest and most valuable of the modern commemorative coins with a catalog value of $5,000. A proof specimen struck at West Point with the "W" mintmark had a mintage of 24,072 pieces. It features Robinson's bust on the obverse and a baseball on the reverse inscribed, "1919-1972/Legacy of Courage." It has a market value of about $1,000.
    Another recent commemorative honoring African Americans recognized black Revolutionary War patriots. The obverse features Crispus Attucks, 1723-1770. The reverse shows a black family with the man holding a musket and wearing a military uniform. A total of 32,210 silver dollars were minted in Philadelphia in 1998. Another 75,070 were minted in proof in San Francisco.
    In 2007, the Mint marked the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., with uncirculated and proof versions of a commemorative silver dollar. This "headless" coin actually depicts the feet of the courageous Little Rock Nine as they are escored to school by members of the National Guard.
    For more details, Google any of the above persons and add "commemorative coins."