By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
I’ve written about commemorative coins before. I wrote about what they are, and why we collect them. Commemoratives in the United States are typically divided into Classic and Modern categories, and I talked briefly about the distinction.
Recent commemoratives, such as the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum gold $5, silver dollar and clad half dollar coins, dominate a good deal of the market. This isn’t always the case, but in general the Modern series of United States commemoratives is far more active than the sleepy Classic series.
Which is why I wanted to talk about two of the Classic series’ most underappreciated entries: the Booker T. Washington and Carver Washington half dollars.
The Booker T. Washington Memorial Commemorative Half Dollar (1946-51)
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born a slave in Virginia in 1856 but rose to become a masterful educator and politician. He is perhaps best known for the founding of the Tuskegee Institute, the historic school in Alabama that sought to educate former slaves and their descendants, and his belief in a gradualist, less-confrontational style of social and political advancement for African-Americans.
Washington ran the Tuskegee Institute according to his vision of economic and industrial self-improvement until his death in 1915. About 30 years later, a former student of his named S.J. Phillips developed a plan to purchase Washington’s Virginia birthplace as a memorial and educational center. Working with Washington’s daughter Portia, the two advocated the production of a commemorative coin to fund these efforts.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The thirties were a busy time for the Classic commemorative series, with many coins “funding” far less memorable and far less nationally-relevant projects (of course, a fair amount of grift was taking place as well).
So in August of 1946, a bill was passed authorizing production of up to five million Booker T. Washington half dollars. Both Phillips and Portia Washington Pittman had assumed that the primary demographic for the coin would be the nation’s African-American population, and that support from the community would more than justify the large mintage. Unfortunately, the coin market doesn’t work like that, and only established collectors bought the coin in large amounts the first year.
Afterwards, the market still consisted primarily of established collectors but fewer and fewer were buying the coin, since an investment in a commemorative series with such a large, unsold mintage seemed like a sucker’s bet. It didn’t help that distribution was a mess. Or that collectors were forced to buy three-coin sets (one each from the three branch mints) instead of individual pieces. Large hoards were still hitting the market well into the 1970s.
Together with the disappointing financial chicanery of Phillips and Pittman, these factors made sure that a great coin like the Booker T. Washington commemorative half dollar almost put an end to the Classic Commemorative series.
The Carver / Washington Commemorative Half Dollar (1951-54)
After the intensely productive but increasingly parochial years of 1934-38, the idea of commemorative coins as fundraisers had begun to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many in a position to say enough is enough. Things looked a little better in 1946 when both the Iowa Centennial and Booker T. Washington commemoratives first came out. The fiasco surrounding the Washington program may well have ended the series right then, but the Iowa coin was such a model of how to do it right that it perhaps counterbalanced the ill effects.
So with the Booker T. Washington program scheduled to end in 1951, S.J. Phillips returned to the federal trough and proposed adding George Washington Carver to the coin, hoping to rekindle collector interest. The coin was authorized, but only after Phillips framed it as a way to counter the (perceived) threat of communism in the African-American community.
This is why the reverse of the Carver/Washington half dollar seems so… odd?… to us now.
Apparently, the original reverse was far more blatant.
Sadly, the same distribution and marketing practices that had rubbed people the wrong way with the Booker T. commemorative set were used yet again. Collectors still had to buy the three-mint, three coin set to get their fix.
(At least the mintage was produced from unsold and returned Booker T.’s that the Mint had melted down.)
So once more, a commemorative coin failed to find its audience and made the whole idea of commemoratives look bad. It’s especially tragic since these two programs commemorated individuals of actual national import and, yes, were the first American coins to honor African-Americans.
Speaking of which, I would be remiss without talking about the career of famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. Booker T. Washington invited Carver to run the Agricultural department of Tuskegee University in 1896, which he did until his death in 1943. I guarantee you probably know him as the inventor of peanut butter, but that was merely one of hundreds of products he developed from the peanut, and peanuts were merely one of dozens of agricultural products he found alternative uses for in an effort to help diversify the Southern economy and improve the lives of millions of impoverished Americans in the region.
I’d also be remiss to leave out one other important fact. The designer of both coins was Isaac Scott Hathaway, the first African-American artist whose work was produced by the U.S. Mint. Upon hearing about a possible Booker T. Washington commemorative coin, Hathaway approached Phillips and volunteered his work on the program. He didn’t know that the Mint had already approved a design by Charles Keck, but S.J. Phillips certainly did. Phillips later presented both designs by Keck and Hathaway to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), who then approved Hathaway’s artwork.
Keck was furious but was still paid for his work. The foundation attempting to establish the Booker T. Washington Memorial was embarrassed by the confusion Phillips had caused, but obviously not enough to start looking into how the man was running things.
To make a long story a little shorter, the Booker T. and Carver/Washington commemoratives are underappreciated highlights in the classic commemorative “series”. Not only do they look nice, but they are important pieces of history–vastly more important that the majority of commemoratives this nation has produced.
These coins won’t stay underappreciated forever!
Booker T. Washington Comemmorative Half Dollars Currently Available on eBay
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