In retrospect it seems an inconsequential act to honor the distinguished African-American educator Booker T. Washington. At the time, however, this was a fairly bold move for a nation that in many places still maintained legal segregation of the races. Though Washington certainly was worthy of commemoration, this did not guarantee that the coin would be well received. In fact this issue was not popular, but its disappointing sales don’t appear to have been related to the issue of race; the coins were simply unwanted in their own time. The commemorative coin series as a whole was out of favor, and it would be some years before this situation changed.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in Franklin County, Virginia around 1858. Freed following the Civil War, he sought to advance himself through education. Though there were instruments in place to achieve this in the Reconstruction Era South, Washington first had to work at difficult jobs in a salt furnace and a coal mine before finally entering the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute in Hampton, Virginia in 1872. This was a trade school, and Booker learned practical skills that were in keeping with American society’s perceived role for freed slaves. The young man, however, had loftier aspirations for himself, and he advanced to the Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC for a broader education. Returning to Hampton in 1879 as an instructor, he was charged with educating 75 Native Americans.
At this time the federal government was still actively seeking to advance the lives of former slaves and their children. When money was approved for a technical institute at Tuskegee, Alabama, Washington was selected as its director. Tuskegee Institute opened to 30 students in 1881 using a run down church as its sole facility. With more students arriving, a ruined plantation was acquired through loans and donations, and Washington set the students to work repairing and expanding the structures as needed, often sharing in the physical labor himself as an example to his charges. Both the number of students and the need for better facilities increased, and a permanent brick structure was ultimately erected.
Most of the students had no money, and their education was provided in exchange for their own labor during non-class hours. Over the next couple of decades Booker T. Washington gained fame for his institute’s achievements but, with Reconstruction now over, he was finding it ever harder to extract funding from the federal government. His address during the opening ceremonies at Atlanta’s Cotton States Exposition in 1895 drew nationwide attention from liberals, as well as additional funding opportunities. Building on this success, as well as his well-received 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, Washington continued to preach the gospel of practical education for African-Americans until his death on November 14, 1915. Though his emphasis on manual skills as the ticket to advancement for his race drew criticism from those favoring a more balanced education for black people, it’s evident that his approach was perhaps better suited to the American social climate of its time. But Booker T. Washington’s ceaseless, pioneering efforts helped to ease white America into a greater acceptance of their fellow Americans that would come only after his death.
The bill authorizing production of the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar was passed August 7, 1946 simultaneously with that for the Iowa Centennial Half Dollar. Unlike the latter program, which became a model of equitable production, distribution and funding, the B. T. Washington Act permitted the excesses and abuses which had driven Congress to all but ban the production of commemorative coins in 1939. A total of five million coins were authorized, a number which past experience had shown was many multiples of that which could be sold, regardless of the coin’s appeal historically or aesthetically. In addition, there was no stipulation that production be limited to a single date and mint, an oversight which opened the door to multiples of each. Such endless series of duplicated designs had enraged collectors in the 1930s who, naturally, desired to have a complete set of commemoratives.
The coin’s stated purpose was noble—to honor the memory of Booker T. Washington and to raise funds for the purchase and restoration of his birthplace site in Franklin County, Virginia. It was envisioned that many of the nation’s 15 million African-Americans would be eager to buy one or more examples of this significant coin, a mistake that seemingly all commemorative coin commissions repeat out of ignorance of the coin market. In fact, the coins were sold almost exclusively to established coin collectors, who soon came to resent their overabundance and serial nature.
In charge of the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial Commission was S. J. Phillips. Sculptor Charles Keck, who had previously created the Panama-Pacific Gold Dollar and the Lynchburg, Virginia Half Dollar, was commissioned by Phillips to model the Washington Half Dollar. Working from a photograph and a menu of desired design elements provided by Phillips, Keck completed his models which were shortly thereafter approved by the U. S. Mint.
In the meantime, African-American artist Isaac Scott Hathaway, having learned of the coin program and perhaps not knowing that a sculptor was already engaged, volunteered to produce coin models for free utilizing a life mask of Booker T. Washington from his own collection. Acting alone, S. J. Phillips submitted both sets of models to the Commission of Fine Arts which, not knowing all the facts, approved Hathaway’s design. This caused great embarrassment to the BTW Birthplace Memorial Commission, and it ultimately had to pay Keck for his work, even though the Mint proceeded using Hathaway’s models.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the resulting coin is a very handsome one. Its obverse features a three-quarter facing bust of the great educator. Below this is his name BOOKER T. WASHINGTON, while above is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, both arranged in peripheral arcs around the coin’s plain border. To the left of Washington’s portrait are the year of coining and the value HALF DOLLAR, while the Latin legend E PLURIBUS UNUM is placed to the right. The reverse features in large letters the inscription FROM SLAVE CABIN TO HALL OF FAME. Indeed, both are depicted, New York City’s Hall of Fame colonnade above, and a generic slave cabin below. Squeezed into the spaces at left and right of the cabin are IN GOD WE TRUST and FRANKLIN COUNTY VA, respectively. Below the cabin is yet another statutory motto, LIBERTY, flanked by small stars, while the words BOOKER T. WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE MEMORIAL are arranged in an arc inside the upper periphery. For coins struck at the Denver or San Francisco Mints, their mintmark letters appear directly below the cabin.
For the initial offering in 1946, more than 200,000 complete sets were possible of the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mint coins. Philadelphia struck more than a million examples that year to provide for sales of single coins to the general public. Such sales rarely materialized, and many of these coins were subsequently melted or placed into circulation at face value. Nevertheless, all three mints coined this type annually through 1951 in ever-diminishing quantities that went straight to speculators and those few collectors who stayed with the program each year. Only the 1950-S and 1951(P) coins had significantly larger mintages, around half a million each, but again these coins were mostly returned to the Mint in later years for melting.
The 1946-47 series were distributed directly by the BTW Commission, but all subsequent issues were turned over to the coin dealership Bebee’s in Omaha for sale directly to coin collectors, it being evident by then that such people would be the only buyers. Even then, huge quantities went unsold and were ultimately handled by other dealers who acquired them at wholesale prices, and small hoards existed for years afterward as a drug on the market.
S. J. Phillips ultimately became mired in failed promises and charges of corruption and malfeasance. By the mid-1950s it was evident that whatever money had been raised through the sale of these coins was either lost or insufficient for the original purpose of the program. In fact, the commission owed $140,000, and the Commonwealth of Virginia finally stepped in to purchase the Washington birthplace site and present it to the federal government.