Some of the most notorious of United States commemorative coin programs began with the best of intentions, and that appears to have been the case with the series of half dollar coins honoring Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Produced annually from 1951 through 1954 and sold mostly in three-coin sets representing each of the U. S. Mints, these coins were designed to honor two great African-Americans at a time when such recognition was rare indeed. Unfortunately, this program became mired in greed and bad feelings, much as had its predecessor series honoring B. T. Washington alone.
George Washington Carver did more than play with peanuts, though his discovery of many practical uses for this staple of southern agriculture is what he is best remembered for today. Born around 1864 near Diamond Grove, Missouri, he was the son of slaves but was raised during the Reconstruction period immediately following America’s Civil War. Frail health and poor stature prevented him from engaging in the more physical pastimes of boyhood, so he set his mind to work exploring the wonders of nature, particularly with respect to the plant world. An affinity for diagnosing the causes of plant ailments led to him being nicknamed the “plant doctor,” and this gave him his life’s future direction.
Taking his surname from former owner Moses Carver, young George worked his way as best he could, acquiring his education on the fly whenever circumstances permitted and attending whichever school was available to him. He made his way to Minneapolis and began working in a laundry, eventually opening one of his own. It was at this time that he adopted the middle name of Washington, as another George Carver in town frequently received his mail by mistake.
Desiring a broader education, George W. Carver was denied admittance to most colleges because of his race, but he was accepted at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa in 1890. Paying his way by doing other students’ laundry, he initially studied art but later realized that it was of little practical value to him. It was then that he moved to Ames, Iowa to attend the Iowa State College of Agriculture, receiving his B. S. degree in 1894. Considered brilliant and extremely knowledgeable by all who knew him, he was hired by his alma mater as an instructor in botany, later moving to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was there that he performed his greatest research, working around its meager budget by outfitting his laboratory with cast-off junk. To advance the lowly status of poor, southern farmers, he devised numerous uses for soybeans, sweet potatoes and peanuts, crops considered all but worthless before he illuminated their practical applications. This diversification of agriculture proved to be of even greater value when the twin evils of soil depletion and the boll weevil all but destroyed the southern cotton industry.
George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943. He left his estate to Tuskegee Institute, the vocational college for African-Americans that had been founded by Booker T. Washington some 60 years earlier. The two men were inextricably linked to that institution, for which they had devoted their entire lives and energies, and it was only fitting that they be honored jointly on a commemorative coin.
When the Washington/Carver Half Dollar debuted at the end of 1951, it was seen by its sponsor as the salvation for another commemorative coin program that was then wheezing its dying breaths. In 1946 the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial Commission had succeeded in getting legislation passed authorizing the production of half dollar coins honoring the famous educator. Funds raised from the sale of these coins were intended for the purchase of Washington’s birthplace site and the erection of a memorial there. Three-coin sets were sold annually from 1946 through 1951, but collectors were resentful toward having to buy so many coins to have complete sets, and sales dropped off drastically before the authorizing act expired August 7, 1951. Spearheading the program was promoter S. J. Phillips, and he immediately pushed for a second bill that would add George Washington Carver to the B. T. Washington coin in an attempt to revive collector interest. This bill passed September 21, 1951 under the sponsorship of the George Washington Carver National Monument Foundation. Congress, though leery of further commemorative programs, was persuaded to enact this legislation on the pretext that it would “oppose the spread of Communism among Negroes in the interest of national defense.” Such was America in 1951.
The design for this coin was created by sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway, who had performed the same work for the B. T. Washington issue. His original reverse included the American Legion logo and carried a xenophobic, anti-communist manifesto. This was vetoed by the State Department, and Hathaway replaced it with less controversial imagery.
As minted, the Washington/Carver Half Dollar depicts conjoined busts of the two men facing right, with Carver in the foreground. Their names are arranged in arcs around their busts, the names divided above by LIBERTY and below by the value HALF DOLLAR. Framing the periphery are the legends UNITED STATES OF AMERICA above and IN GOD WE TRUSTE PLURIBUS UNUM below. If this sounds overly congested, it is, and the pitiful little date of coining is wedged uncomfortably between this lettering to left of Carver’s portrait. On the reverse is a map of the continental United States. For those coin buyers who might not recognize it, the letters U. S. A. are superimposed atop it. Around the periphery are the phrases FREEDOM AND OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL above and AMERICANISM below. For coins minted at Denver and San Francisco, their mintmark letters appear below the map.
The mintage of this issue was produced largely from unsold B. T. Washington Halves that were returned by the commission and melted. In addition to these, more than a million additional coins remained unstruck from the original 1946 authorization, and these too could be produced as W/C Halves. As that bill also permitted the annual striking of commemoratives at all three mints, this odious practice was continued with the new series. Three-coin sets having mintages of roughly 8,000-12,000 pieces were produced every year from 1951 through 1954, with additional large quantities struck of the 1951(P), 1952(P), 1953-S and 1954-S coins for sale as singles.
The three-coin sets were distributed by Stack’s in 1951-52, but poor sales caused this company to decline its distributorship in 1953-54. Though the GWC National Monument Foundation received these coins at face value from the Mint, it insisted on a price of $10 for the three-piece sets, which was simply too much money for coins that no one seemed to want. Indeed, most sold for below issue price within a year or two of release, and the Foundation was soon wholesaling them to whomever would buy even small quantities. The elusive hope that African-Americans would buy large numbers out of a sense of ethnic pride had been dashed with the B. T. Washington coin series, and the inclusion of the phrase “Freedom and Opportunity for All” on the W/C coins did little to encourage sales. The patent hollowness of this promise in 1951 perhaps accounted for the fact that so few African-Americans stepped forward to buy these coins at a premium price.
As the program expired in 1954 it drew few mourners. American coin collectors were bored with commemorative coins in general and with the serial ones in particular. The BTW and W/C Halves were among the least desired at that time, and many thousands were returned to the Mint for melting, while thousands more were sold to speculators at just pennies above face value by the banks holding them as collateral. It’s likely that the GWC Memorial Foundation likewise sold many more at whatever price it could get, as these coins existed in large hoards for decades afterward. Their frequent wholesale trading in bag quantities did little for their long-term preservation, and most reveal numerous bag marks that further erode the limited appeal of their mediocre design. Nevertheless, all collectors of United States commemoratives will want to own at least one example of a coin whose subject matter proved more worthy than its execution and sale.