The U.S. Mint will release a commemorative gold coin in April that will feature Lady Liberty as a black woman, marking the first time she has been depicted as anything other than white on the nation’s currency.
The coin, with a $100 face value, will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the mint’s coin production, the mint and the Treasury Department announced Thursday. Going on sale April 6, it will be 24-karat and weigh about an ounce.
It is part of a series of commemorative coins that will be released every two years. Future ones will show Lady Liberty as Asian, Hispanic and Indian “to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” the mint said in a statement.
The announcement comes at a pivotal cultural moment for the United States, a week away from a transfer of power following a bruising election dominated by debates about immigration, race and political correctness.
And Lady Liberty is among the most potent of U.S. symbols. Her best-known depiction, a gift from France in 1886, stands in New York Harbor, a giant statue of a woman with white European features beckoning with a lamp to the refugees of the world.
“Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage,” Rhett Jeppson, the principal deputy director of the mint, said in a phone interview Friday. “But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”
Do not expect to see anyone spending the coins at the store. Coins like this do not circulate for everyday use, but are minted for collectors in limited quantities. There will be 100,000 of them with the black Lady Liberty. They will sell for far more than face value, depending on the value of gold, currently more than $1,000 an ounce.
“As we as a nation continue to evolve, so does Liberty’s representation,” Elisa Basnight, the chief of staff at the mint, said at a presentation Thursday in Washington.
The coin’s head (what the mint calls the obverse) was designed by Justin Kunz and engraved by Phebe Hemphill, and it shows a profile of Lady Liberty with a crown of stars that holds back her hair. The tail (the reverse, in mint lingo), shows an eagle in flight.
Jeppson said that several women had approached him after seeing the coin and told him “she looks like me when I was younger.”
“I saw real value in that,” he said. “That we see ourselves in the images in our coins.”
The mint is expecting the coin to sell well, Jeppson said. Any profit the mint generates from the sale of its coins is returned to the Treasury. Last year, the mint sent about $600 million back to the U.S. government, Jeppson said.
In addition to the 100,000 gold coins — more than is typical for this sort of commemorative coin — that will be printed at West Point, the mint will also produce 100,000 of what it calls medals, silver reproductions of the image that will sell for around $40 to $50.
“The silver medals will be done at Philadelphia because that is the birthplace of the mint,” Jeppson said.
The Coinage Act of 1792 established the mint, and it also mandated that any coins produced by the mint include an image of “liberty” as well as an inscription of the word. Since then, the idea has appeared in many forms on U.S. currency, both circulated and collectible, most often as the feminine Lady Liberty.
“When you look at the very first coins that we produced, they had a crazy-haired Liberty on there,” Jeppson said.
These coins are already in production. The next ones in the series are in the planning stage. Rough guidelines are given to sets of artists and sculptors, some of whom are staff at the mint and others who are part of a pool, as Kunz was. Their work is then shared with the members of two commissions — one a group of citizen advisers and one a fine arts commission — who make recommendations on the final design for the coin.
“It’s difficult for us to say what future coins will look like until we get there,” Jeppson said.