“Lady Liberty, as depicted in coinage throughout the years, is modeled after our society’s continued evolution,” Elisa Basnight, U.S. Mint chief of staff, said during an event Thursday. “As we as a nation, continue to evolve, so does Liberty’s representation.”
The 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary Gold Coin, which will be released in April, marks the first time that Liberty will be portrayed as a black woman, at least to the best of the U.S. Mint’s knowledge. In her remarks earlier this week — during a kickoff the Mint’s anniversary celebration — Basnight noted that “we like to say at the mint, that our coins are the metallic footprints of our nation’s history,” and symbolize what America values and honors. In a blog post, Rhett Jeppson, principal deputy director of the U.S. Mint, wrote that this gold coin reflected both the past and future.
“The coin demonstrates our roots in the past through such traditional elements as the inscriptions United States of America, Liberty, E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust,” Jeppson said in the post. “We boldly look to the future by casting Liberty in a new light, as an African-American woman wearing a crown of stars, looking forward to ever brighter chapters in our Nation’s history book.”
The $100 gold collectible coin is part of a series that will “depict an allegorical Liberty in a variety of contemporary forms-including designs representing Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Indian-Americans among others-to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” according to the news release on the coin. The coins will be sold for about $1,500 each, Mint spokesman Michael White told USA Today.
Jeppson told The Washington Post in a phone interview that in a way, the idea for the coin is tied to the act that created the U.S. Mint. That act instructed the Mint on how to make coins, Jeppson said, and was very specific.
“Our Founding Fathers wanted ideals on their coins,” Jeppson said. “So really, what you see us doing today is trying to embody the ideal of Liberty, interpreted today, in a modern way, with recognition in honoring our past, recognizing that, but looking to who we are as a people today.”
The Mint, he said, “really wanted people to have a conversation about Liberty.”
“Because we think it’s an important conversation for us to have, often as a Americans,” Jeppson said.
Lady Liberty is an idea and an ideal. That's not French. That's universal, and should be all shapes, colours, races.— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) January 13, 2017
Coin World, a numismatic magazine, has been covering on the Liberty portrait since March, William Gibbs, its managing editor, wrote in an email to The Post. Two federal panels recommended the design, he wrote.
When the design recommendations were initially announced, reaction on the Coin World Facebook page and in collector forums was “mixed,” Gibbs wrote. Some people liked what they saw, while others had complaints. (A common gripe, Gibbs said, focused on the size of the stars encircling Liberty’s head.)
“Some accused the Mint of being ‘politically correct’ by selecting the portrait, or blamed the Obama White House for the decision (not accurate); others felt that depicting Liberty as an African American woman would be historically inaccurate since most African Americans were slaves when the Mint was founded in 1792 and Congress ordered that our coins depict a figure of Liberty,” he wrote. “Other collectors, however, embraced the concept and loved the possibility of greater diversity. A few individuals, unfortunately, voiced their objections in clearly racist terms.”
Gibbs added: “In short, the comments were very much like we are seeing today in the mainstream news media since collectors, while being largely older white men (like me), hold a wide range of political and personal views like all Americans.”
For his part, Gibbs said he likes the design, and he wrote that he welcomes “the concept of depicting Liberty in new forms.”
“For me, the selection of this portrait is long overdue,” he wrote. “The United States is a truly diverse nation, united in our love of Liberty, so it is only fitting that Liberty be portrayed in many guises that are representative of all Americans and not just in the classic forms used in the past.”
Liberty has been portrayed lots of ways, said Jeppson, the Mint official. With her hair up and down. Holding a sword and, or a battle ax.
“This is just a different way representing allegorical Liberty,” Jeppson said. “The idea wasn’t just to put an African American woman on a coin. The idea was to talk about Liberty and where we see it today as an American people. Not specific to ethnicity, but as an American value, as something that we cherish and we fought for. And we should guard with a great deal of vigor.”
Jeppson said that when officials were developing the coin, they wanted to be sensitive as they moved through the process. So, he said, they asked “several prominent ladies” what they thought.
“And really, just like you would any piece of art, they had their opinions about ‘well I like this element of the coin, I don’t like this element of the coin,’ maybe the stars are too big or not big enough, different things like that,” he said. “But almost universally, every one of these ladies said ‘I see myself in her when I was younger.’ ‘She looks like I did when I was younger.’ So I think that if we have coinage that people can see themselves, or relate to, I think there’s real value in that.”
This post has been updated to fix a typo.