Lady Liberty is a black woman, and Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens get commemorated in coin, too
Some of the money spends, but the currency is truly about history, power and respect
The U.S. Mint is issuing a $100 gold coin depicting Lady Liberty as a sista to commemorate its 225th anniversary. It’s 24-carat gold and weighs in at an ounce. Future coins will show Lady Liberty as Asian-American, Latin American and Native American “to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States.” And while this isn’t the first time African-Americans have been featured on U.S. currency, this is first time Lady Liberty has been illustrated as nonwhite.
Black people have been featured on currency for decades. In 2003, York, Capt. William Clark’s slave, appeared as the first African-American on circulating currency, the “Missouri quarter.” In 1951, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver appeared together on a commemorative half dollar. And in 2020, the design of the new $20 bill featuring Harriet Tubman will be “released in honor of the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement.” Proofs of President Barack Obama’s commemorative coins and various other coins are available at the U.S. Mint’s website.
And before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee for justice, athletes such as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson advocated for equal treatment of all. At a time when it was even tougher to be black, and tougher than that to talk about being black, these three athletes met calls to action and transcended their sports by pushing for change and inspiring a nation. They helped America become a better reflection of itself. These three legends are the only athletes to be featured on U.S. commemorative currency. Being featured on U.S. currency is among the nation’s highest honors.
Commemorative coins and medals are not for circulation but serve as keepsakes that recall a particular event or issue that took place in the United States. Several prominent black figures have attained this honor, having their contributions ratified and recognized throughout several presidential administrations and by members of Congress since the 1960s. Commemorative objects featuring Owens, Louis and Robinson went on display Jan. 31 at the Museum of UnCut Funk’s newest exhibition, For the Love of Money: Blacks on U.S. Currency, along with other noted entertainers, politicians, and military and civil rights leaders. The exhibit will remain open at the New York City’s Museum of American Finance until January 2018.
The museum’s aim is to educate all people about black history — essentially, American history — via 41 commemorative items featuring African-Americans and their centuries-long struggle for equality. The museum also will educate people about the legislative and U.S Mint process. For a figure to be selected for representation, he or she must first be nominated and then ratified by two-thirds of Congress. “In addition to being amazing athletes,” the Museum of UnCut Funk’s co-curator, Loreen Williamson, said, “they carried the weight of black America on their shoulders.”
Louis, who reigned for 12 years as heavyweight champion, is regarded as one of boxing’s all-time greats. During his long reign as champion, there was perhaps no more remarkable victory than his 1938 rematch against Germany’s Max Schmeling, whom Louis defeated during the Nazi era. Louis fought for more than the sport. “The symbolism,” said Williamson, “of beating a German at the time transcended the sport. It was him defeating Nazism, defeating white supremacy.” Louis is featured on a 1982 commemorative bronze medal.
The 1936 Olympic Games were of course the supposed showcase for Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. African-Americans foiled that notion by leading the United States to more than half of the 11 gold medals won by Americans. Owens proved to be the most dominant athlete competing. Back in the States, Owens spoke openly and critically about the hypocrisy of the U.S. “When I came back to my native country,” he said, “I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. … I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president [Franklin D. Roosevelt], either.” Owens is featured on a 1988 commemorative bronze medal (“medals” and “commemorative coins” are used interchangeably).
Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s color barrier. During his almost decade-long career in the majors, Robinson became one of the best baseball players to have ever played and became an important civil rights figure. “Robinson broke barriers in a team sport, which is difficult. As a young man, these guys couldn’t just play the game,” said Williamson. “They represented more than a game.” Robinson is featured on a 1997 commemorative gold coin, 1997 commemorative silver dollar and a 2005 commemorative bronze medal.
Fifty thousand people visit the Museum of American Finance each year. Williamson said she hopes to bring the exhibition to museums across the country.