This commemorative half dollar features Booker T. Washington, a man who worked tirelessly to promote education and opportunities for freed slaves at the tail end of Reconstruction. These were minted from 1946 to 1951 at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints (for a total of 18 varieties).
On the obverse, Booker T Washington is shown in 3/4 profile, facing to the right. He has a determined look on his face, and close cropped hair that contributes to a military bearing. He is shown wearing a simple and elegant suit (possibly a frock coat or other Victorian garment). From 8:00 to 2:00, the coin bears the legend “United States of America”. From 6:00 to 3:00, it reads “Booker T. Washington”. The date and denomination are at 6:00 – “1946 Half Dollar” and the motto “E Pluribus Unum” is at 3:00.
The reverse shows the “Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial” – a National Monument that is now maintained by the US Park Service. The monument preserves part of the tobacco farm where Washington was born, along with slave cabins and vegetable plots. Back to the coin – it has the central legend “From Slave Cabin to Hall of Fame”, set in the center between two buildings. The upper building appears to be the South Entrance to the US Hall of Fame at the Bronx Community College. The lower building is a simple slave cabin. The motto “In god we trust” is on the left of the slave cabin, and the location “Franklin County, VA.” is on the right of the cabin. The word “Liberty” is at 6:00.
For coins struck at the Denver or San Francisco Mints, the mintmark appears below the cabin and above “Liberty”.
Identification code: B. T. Washington 50c
Mint Mark: n/a (Philadelphia)
Mintage: 700,546 (55.96% of the 1,250,825 minted in 1946 & of the 44.03% of the 1,591,029 total minted of all Booker T. Washington commemoratives).
Country of origin: United States
Composition: 90% silver, 10% copper (0.36169 oz ASW)
Size: 30.6 mm
Weight: 12.5 grams
Other details: When the coin was issued, putting an African American on a US coin was very controversial (segregation was still widely practiced throughout the south). Booker Taliaferro Washington was the first African American honored on a US coin; he was also the first to be honored with his own US postage stamp, the first to have a US ship named after him, the first invited to the White House as a guest, and the first to receive a National Monument in his honor. He was also honored on another commemorative half dollar from 1951 to 1954 (along with George Washington Carver).
Despite the high esteem that history holds Mr. Washington in, this coin was not well received in its time. The large number of mints and multiple years of minting may also have played a part, since these required a major investment for collectors to complete the series. The coins were also minted after a glut of other commemorative half dollars, and collectors were growing tired of them. From 1954 to 1982, there would be a long gap before commemorative half dollars were minted again.
Booker T. Washington had a very interesting life – despite the mechanisms put in place by Reconstruction after the Civil War, Washington had difficulty finding work that would advance his skills. He started out laboring in a salt furnace and a coal mine before finally entering the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute in Hampton, Virginia in 1872. This trade school taught Mr. Washington skills that targeted a narrow role for freed slaves. He continued his education at the Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC and returned to Hampton in 1879 as an instructor. His first class was seventy-five Native Americans.
Washington’s success as an educator led to a major opportunity in 1881. He received a Federal Grant to develop a technical institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee Institute was built onto an abandoned church and opened its doors to thirty students in 1881. Booker T. Washington quickly expanded the facility, using his students as a construction and repair workforce. Most of the students were poor – their ‘tuition’ was paid in the form of labor during after school hours.
The curriculum focused on trade skills and manual labor, which led to criticism from Booker T Washington’s contemporaries and modern historians. Some feel that he played into stereotypical roles for the “proper place” in society for freed slaves. Others argue that he was a realist about making gradual progress. Regardless, he was able to navigate the cultural minefield and successfully solicited donations from many sources to build an effective and affordable facility.
Washington’s address during the opening ceremonies at Atlanta’s Cotton States Exposition in 1895 drew nationwide attention and brought many donations. Booker T Washington’s autobiography (Up from Slavery) brought further attention and funding. He published four other books that were also widely read:The Story of My Life and Work (1900), The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery (1909), My Larger Education (1911), & The Man Farthest Down (1912).
Congress passed a bill authorizing production of the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar on August 7, 1946. Unlike the act funding the Iowa Commemorative Half Dollars (passed on the same day), the B. T. Washington Act led to an oversupply and over-variety of coins. A total of five million coins were authorized, which was far more than any other commemorative series had been able to sell. In addition, the bill did not limit production to a single date or mint, an oversight which the promoters took serious advantage of. 18 different date and mint combinations were produced between 1946 and 1951.
The coin’s purpose was to raise funds for the purchase and restoration of his birthplace site in Franklin County, Virginia. It was (rather naively/optimistically) expected that many of the nation’s 15 million African-Americans would be eager to buy one or more examples of this significant coin. Instead, the coins were sold almost exclusively to established coin collectors, who soon came to resent their overabundance and repetitive nature.
S. J. Phillips was in charge of the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial Commission, and he chose Sculptor Charles Keck to design the coin. Keck, who had previously created the Panama-Pacific Gold Dollar and the Lynchburg, Virginia Half Dollar, submitted models that were quickly approved by the U. S. Mint.
Without realizing that another artist had been engaged, African-American artist Isaac Scott Hathaway, volunteered his services for free. He used a life mask of Booker T. Washington and submitted his designs to SJ Phillips.
S. J. Phillips submitted both sets of models to the Commission of Fine Arts which, choseHathaway’s design. This caused a major controversy before mintage even began, and the BTW Birthplace Memorial Commission had to pay Keck for his work even though the Mint proceeded using Hathaway’s models.
The 1946-47 series were distributed directly by the BTW Commission, but the expected volume of sales did not materialize and many of the 1946 coins were melted down for their silver content. The coin dealership Bebee’s in Omaha handled sales from 1948 to 1951 and sold the majority of those coins directly to collectors. Huge quantities still went unsold and were passed around between coin dealers at wholesale prices. Small hoards existed for decades afterward and dragged down prices.
The organizer of the committee (S. J. Phillips) became mired in failed promises and charges of malfeasance. The money that was raised through the sale of these coins was insufficient for the original purpose of the program. In fact, the commission owed $140,000! Eventually, Virginia’s state government stepped in to purchase Booker T. Washington’s birthplace and presented it to the federal government. It is now a National Historic Monument.
Estimated Value: $15 to $20 in EF40 condition (with silver at $36/ounce).