In 1919, Alabama celebrated the centennial of its admission into the Union as the nation’s 22nd state. Two years later, the occasion was marked by the issuance of a commemorative half dollar coin. Both the story of how the coin came to be and the rather unusual circumstance where a living person was featured on the coin make the Alabama Centennial silver half dollar one of the great coins of the classic commemorative period.
The area of present-day Alabama was explored by Spain in 1540 and settled by France in 1702. The French claimed territorial control over large swaths of the North American interior, even though much of the frontier had not been settled by Europeans. In 1763, the French lost claim to the territory as a term of their treaty with the British that ended the Seven Years’ War.
The state’s boundaries were derived from a series of agreements between Native American tribes, neighboring colonies, and the European colonial powers. When Spain finally ceded its claim to the region’s coastal territory in 1819, the conditions were right for Alabama statehood. Alabama was admitted to the Union on December 14 of that year. It entered into the Union as the last slave state admitted before the Missouri Compromise.
Alabama owed much of its economic growth in the 19th century to slave labor. At the outset of the American Civil War, over 45% of the state’s population was enslaved (only Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina enslaved more people per capita). And Alabama played a central role in the rebellion. The secession convention was held in Montgomery and the state voted to secede on January 11, 1861. The issue of slavery was top of mind for the Alabama delegation. The state’s political class feared giving rights to enslaved blacks and were willing to die defending the institution. Over 35,000 did, and more than 30,000 Alabamians returned home from the war either maimed or seriously injured. When the Confederacy fell, Alabama was placed under federal military control. Its statehood was restored on July 13, 1868.
Federal Reconstruction in Alabama had mixed results. Freed people enjoyed basic legal protections, but full equality remained out of reach. The Confederate faction reclaimed total control of the state government in 1874 when George S. Houston was elected as governor. Houston never served the Confederate cause and actually opposed secession, but he and his political allies, the Bourbon Democrats, were deeply interested in maintaining the racial hierarchy. It set in place a series of laws to codify segregationist policies starting in 1875 with an amendment to the state constitution that required black children to attend separate schools.
In 1919, when Alabama held its centennial celebrations, the state was a vastly different place from when it was admitted. The state was undergoing a major infrastructure revolution. Hydroelectric energy came on board in 1914, sending electricity to Birmingham and beginning a two-decade push to deliver electricity to the entire state. Mechanization helped sustain the state’s agricultural sector, even as the boll weevil blight of 1915 dealt farmers a major economic blow. Economic insecurity is partly the reason for an uptick in racial violence during the period.
A high-profile lynching of two black American servicemen scandalized Birmingham. It was part of a series of violent racial crimes that took place in the American Red Summer of 1919.
It was in the light of this human and political drama that Alabama marked the centennial of its statehood. Parades and festivities were held throughout 1919, but it was not until the following year that the Alabama Centennial Commission promoted legislation that would authorize the striking of a commemorative quarter dollar. Amended in April to change the proposed quarter to a half dollar, the bill was passed on May 10, 1920. A maximum of 100,000 coins was authorized.
The Alabama Commission, headed by Mrs. Marie Bankhead Owen, suggested several design motifs. Foremost among these was an obverse with a likeness of the state capitol and a reverse with dual images of Presidents Monroe and Wilson, respectively the Chief Executives in 1819 and 1919. The Commission of Fine Arts rejected Mrs. Owen’s ideas on the grounds that they were artistically inappropriate, pointing out that buildings seldom make good subjects for coinage. Almost a year passed before any more action was taken.
In June of 1921, Mrs. Owen submitted her new proposal: an obverse with the Alabama State Seal and a reverse with portraits of the governor at the time of statehood in 1819, William Bibb, and his counterpart in 1919, Thomas Kilby. Ultimately this design was adopted, but the Alabama Commission’s designated reverse became the official obverse of the issued coin. Thus, the Alabama half dollar became the first commemorative coin to depict a living individual. It would not be the last.
James Earle Fraser, the sculptor member of the Fine Arts Commission, selected his wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, also a renowned artist, to prepare models for the coin. James Fraser also suggested a “special mark” be placed on some of the coins. He knew of the success that the Missouri Centennial Committee had experienced with the addition of the “2*4” mark on 5,000 of its coins, and he suggested that the Alabama Commission might have similar luck were they to do the same. The commission readily agreed, spurning no opportunity to raise additional funds.
Mrs. Fraser placed overlapping profiles of the two governors on the coin’s obverse, flanked by 22 stars representing Alabama’s admission as the 22nd state. The legends UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR encircle the periphery, with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST placed above the governors’ heads. Below the portraits appears the date 1921, flanked by the two governors’ names. On coins with the “special mark” suggested by Fraser, a “2X2” appears in the right obverse field. Over the years, collectors have mistakenly read this as “2 by 2” or “2 times 2”; in fact, the central character is not an X but instead represents the red, X-shaped cross of Saint Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, as seen on the Alabama state flag.
The reverse features a rendering of the eagle from the state seal, perched upon a horizontal shield, grasping arrows in its talons and a ribbon in its beak. The ribbon is inscribed with the state motto: HERE WE REST. Above the eagle is the inscription STATE OF ALABAMA with the dual dates 1819 and 1919 flanking CENTENNIAL below. Laura Gardin Fraser’s initials, LGF, are in the right reverse field near the rim.
The coins were first distributed on the morning of October 26, 1921, as President Warren Harding passed through Birmingham to help dedicate the new Masonic temple. There is some dispute whether the “2X2” coins were the first struck, as eyewitnesses were not able to purchase any coins other than the “plain” pieces. There is also some disagreement about just how many pieces were struck, melted, and the net number distributed. Various reputable accountings place the number of “2X2” pieces minted at anywhere from 5,000 to 15,014 pieces, and they all make a reasonable case for their position. Currently accepted catalogs, however, maintain that 6,006 pieces of the “2X2” variety were struck with the six odd coins reserved for assay purposes. Of the “plain” halves, 64,038 were minted, with 38 assay pieces and 5,000 unsold examples melted, resulting in a net mintage of 59,000 coins.
The Alabama Centennial half dollar is a challenging coin to locate in problem-free condition, but every commemorative collector needs at least one example. As a general rule, type collectors include a “plain” Alabama in their set, while complete-set collectors are interested in both varieties. This is not a hard and fast rule, however. Unlike the Grant issues where there is a large difference in price between the “plain” and specially marked issues, with Alabama halves, in spite of the widely disparate mintages of the two varieties, there is little difference in actual rarity or price.
Alabama halves were sold by banks throughout the state, and most were purchased by the non-collecting public. As a result, most pieces survive in grades MS 60 or lower. Unlike many other commemoratives that never entered circulation, Alabama halves saw widespread use during the Depression, and many were carried as pocket pieces. The typical coin encountered today is likely to grade XF or AU. Mint state pieces are quite scarce and high-grade (MS 64 or better) examples are very elusive.
Much of this issue was weakly struck, and grading can be somewhat tricky. Luster ranges from a subdued satin finish to bright and frosted, while weak areas are often confused with wear. Uncirculated examples, however, will still possess luster on the higher points of the design, namely on Kilby’s upper ear and on the eagle’s breast, leg, and talons. Wear first appears on Kilby’s forehead and cheek and on the eagle’s neck, wingtip, and the upper edge of its wing. Some specimens are known with die-clash marks in the obverse fields, especially behind Kilby’s head. Mint caused, these do not detract from the coin’s value. There are unconfirmed rumors of a matte proof striking of the “2X2” variety, but no other especially struck coins are believed to exist.
Alabama halves were the first of the artificially created commemorative issues that were to reach full bloom in the mid-1930s. Proposed as an afterthought, and inspired primarily by the commercial success of other issues, the Alabama commemorative succeeds in one area where many other issues fail: design. This is undoubtedly due to the skill and artistry of Laura Gardin Fraser, who went on to create other commemorative coins, including the universally acclaimed Oregon Trail half dollar.
The 1921 Alabama Half Dollar in Today’s Market
NGC reports 2,089 grading events for the standard version and 1,793 of the “2×2” version. PCGS reports 2,695 grading events for the standard version and 2,461 of the “2×2” version. Assume that some percentage of these grading events reflect repeat submissions and crossover, especially for high-end coins that trade frequently at auction. Still, it is interesting to think that as many as 80% of the total number of “2×2” coins that have been distributed have been certified by the two major grading services and that only about 500 more have been certified from the much larger distribution of plain obverse coins.
The value differential between plain and the “2×2” certainly is not so great as to explain the discrepancy in submissions. It is possible, as David Hall suggests in the PCGS CoinFacts coin narrative, that both coins “appear to be of similar rarity.”
The majority of the issue would likely grade between MS65 and MS66 as distributed. The surviving population of gradable coins appears to settle a point down with the majority of coins earning the MS64 grade. As a gem or better coin, the Alabama half dollar is probably underrated. The coin is scarce in MS66 and seldom encountered in MS67. Recent sales show the coin bringing $350 in MS63, $600-$700 in MS65, and $10,000+ in MS67. The “2×2” typically brings about 20% more up to MS67, where the plain has historically been more valuable due to its condition rarity at that level.
Coins graded below MS65 should be avoided by the “investor collector” and even budget collectors would be advised to eschew impaired examples in the lower end of the Mint State spectrum. Choose MS63/MS64 coins for coin albums or budget-minded commemorative sets.
In center, the left-facing jugate busts of William Wyatt Bibb (the first governor of Alabama) and T. E. Kilby (the incumbent governor of Alabama at the time of the coin’s production). Below the bust truncation is the inscription: BIBB 1921 KILBY. Two sets of stars bookend the portrait, configured at 12 stars (5, 4, 3) to the left and nine stars (4, 3, 3) to the right. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA wraps around the rim at the top with IN GOD WE TRUST wrapping around the top of Bibb and Kilby’s heads in smaller typeface. HALF DOLLAR wraps around the bottom of the rim. On 6,006 strikings of the coin, 2×2 is stamped in incuse typeface to the right of the portrait above the stars.
The reverse is dominated by a detailed rendering of a bald eagle, facing left that was adapted from the Alabama Seal. Fraser’s sculpt advances on the original design and is more detailed and dynamic. The eagle clasps in its beak a ribbon that reads HERE WE REST. Six stars from the federal shield are visible below the eagle’s tail feathers. The following inscriptions wrap around the rim: STATE OF ALABAMA (above) 1819 CENTENNIAL 1919 (below). Lauara Gardin Fraser’s initials LGF appears at the 3:30 position next to the rim.
The edge of the 1921 Alabama half dollar is reeded.
Laura Gardin Fraser was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1889. After receiving an education at the Columbia University and later at the Art Students League of New York, where she studied under her future husband James Earle Fraser. Laura Gardin Fraser died in 1966. In 2022, the portrait of George Washington that she submitted for the Washington quarter will be used, replacing the long-running portrait submitted in the same competition by John Flanagan.
|Year Of Issue:||1921|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|Distribution:||16,014 (Plain); 6,006 (with “2×2”)|
|Alloy:||.900 Silver, .100 copper|
|OBV Designer||Laura Gardin Fraser|
|REV Designer||Laura Gardin Fraser|