Why an African-American Lady Liberty graces US Mint's newest coin

The coin will be the first in a series of 24-karat gold commemorative coins produced by the US Mint. They're intended to celebrate a multicultural America – and an evolving vision of liberty.

U.S. Mint/AP
This undated handout image provided by the US Mint shows the design for the 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary Gold Coin. The coin is worth $100.

When the founders established the US Mint in 1792, they required every coin to have an “impression emblematic of liberty.” The latest coins – released in celebration of the Mint’s 225th anniversary – are a testament to how that vision has evolved over the country’s history.

On Thursday, the Mint unveiled the first in its series of new designs. The coin – a $100 collector’s item struck in 24-karat gold – features Lady Liberty, for the first time portrayed as an African-American woman. She wears a crown of stars and is surrounded by the inscriptions “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and the dates of the Mint’s anniversary.

For the Mint, it’s important for currency to reflect how the United States has changed in the centuries since its founding. Though white men are still disproportionately represented, the new coin is part of an ongoing effort to portray the evolving face of liberty.

"Our hope is that this coin really gets people thinking and talking about what liberty looks like and represents to them," said Elisa Basnight, the chief of staff at the Mint, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Lady Liberty, depicted in coinage throughout the years, is modeled after our society's continued evolution – and as we as a nation continue to evolve, so does its representation."

Though the African-American Lady Liberty is currently slated to appear only on a commemorative coin, currency in circulation has been undergoing similar changes. In 1979, suffragist Susan B. Anthony became the first woman to be featured on a coin, appearing on a silver dollar. In 2000, when that coin was retired, the Mint released a gold coin bearing the image of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who guided explorers Lewis and Clark.

And in April, following petitions and online polls, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that Harriet Tubman, the conductor of the Underground Railroad, would soon be featured on the $20 bill. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in April, the choice “illustrates a shift in how Americans want to tell the story of a nation’s path to liberty.” 

"They both represented freedom. Freedom for who is the question," Edward Rugemer, a professor at Yale who specializes in antebellum US history, abolition, and slavery, told the Monitor at the time. President Andrew Jackson, whom Tubman replaces on the bill, was long seen as a liberator, defending Americans from British oppression and protecting poor white men from the American elitism represented by his predecessor, John Quincy Adams. Today, though, Mr. Jackson is better known for causing the deaths of thousands of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears.

The coin will be released on April 6. Future collectible coins, which the Mint plans to release biennially, will portray Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic-Americans, among others, the Mint said. As a group, the coins aim to reflect “the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” according to the Mint.

But the new currency leaves deeper questions. Though women and other ethnic groups may now be seen as standard-bearers of liberty, some are concerned that this symbolic elevation risks obscuring the struggles that these groups continue to face.

"Is this symbolic change going to do anything about the realities that many African-Americans face today?" Dr. Rugemer asked. "That's a deeper question, because symbols only go so far."

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