Coins and bills may seem to be just a way we pay for things, but they have a psychic and symbolic weight that belies their physical heft. Just think about the debates around imagery when the Euro was created, or the more recent dust-up over changes to the U.S. $20 bill.
It was against this backdrop that the Museum of American Finance opened its newest exhibit For The Love of Money: Blacks on US Currency, featuring coins, medals and medallions bearing images of Black icons, historical events, and institutions central to American history.
The exhibit comes from the Museum of UnCut Funk, a virtual museum dedicated to 1970’s Black Culture and Funk. Loreen Williamson, co-curator of the Museum of UnCut Funk, opened her remarks noting that announced changes to US Currency will include images of prominent African Americans: Harriet Tubman will be featured on the front of the new $20 bill; the reverse of the new $10 bill will feature several women’s rights activists, including Sojourner Truth; and the reverse of the new $5 bill will honor prominent individuals including Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. (You can find the full US Treasury announcement here) As she said, quoting the O’Jay’s song that gives this exhibit its title, such a “small piece of paper carries a lot of weight.”
When Ms. Williamson and Pamela Thomas started the Museum, they collected objects they loved, centered on 1970’s Black culture and Funk. They didn’t know that there were black people on U.S. currency – they found their first coin some 15 years ago at a memorabilia show. Ms. Williamson noted that the 41 objects in this exhibit are tangible, permanent, accessible objects for people to learn from – many of the coins have images of historical first events and people who carried the hopes and dreams of their race on their shoulders. For her this exhibit also brings history full circle, as enslaved people were bought and sold on Wall Street, steps away from this exhibit.
The exhibit covers a lot of history, and is divided into 5 parts by type of object: anti-slavery tokens used in the US and England; commemorative coins – they are made in small batches and their sales are used to build museums, maintain historic sites and support Olympic programs; Congressional Gold Medals – one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the US government to honor particular individuals or events; replica bronze medals – these are replicas of the Congressional Gold medals and can be sold; and commemorative gold medallions – in1978 legislation authorized the creation of commemorative American Arts Medallions, to provide a way for U.S. citizens to invest in gold bullion-type coins.
Commemorative coins and medals require an Act of Congress, signed by the US President, to be created, which makes the images that adorn them even more significant.
Throughout the show you’ll find coins bearing the likenesses of many famous figures or commemorating well-known historic events, such as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, the desegregation of Little Rock schools, as well as objects with images of less famous people like Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman aviator in the world. In the displays you’ll be rewarded with the fruits of Ms. Williamson’s research: biographies and descriptions of the people, events and institutions depicted, as well as explanations of how these coins and medals are created. Below are a few of the objects you’ll see:
The sale of Anti-Slavery tokens supported by American abolitionist movement; the design of the American tokens was inspired by British ceramic medallions projected by Josiah Wedgwood, and commissioned by Benjamin Franklin. American copper hard-times tokens were privately minted and used by merchants to make change.
The great jazz artist Louis Armstrong was the first Black man to be honored on a gold commemorative medallion. He was also the first Black man to get feature billing in a major motion picture, Pennies from Heaven. For over 10 years, Armstrong refused to play in his hometown of New Orleans, because they didn’t allow integrated bands. You can also visit his home in Corona, Queens.
The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was commemorated on a Silver Dollar in 2014.
This medal is a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal presented to the American Fighter Aces in recognition of their heroic military service. American Fighter Aces are military pilots credited with destroying five or more confirmed enemy aircraft in aerial combat during a war or conflict. This medal includes the likeness of Lt. Col. Lee Archer, the first and only Black Fighter Ace, who fought in both World War 2 (with the Tuskegee Airmen) and the Korean War. He flew 196 missions and shot down four enemy aircraft; with another pilot he downed a fifth enemy plane.
This 1951 silver half dollar was designed by Isaac Scott Hathaway, the first Black artist whose work was produced by the US Mint. It depicts George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery and became a famous agricultural scientist and inventor; and Booker T. Washington, a former slave who served as an advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now known as Tuskegee University.
Dorothy I. Height was President of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for 40 years. She was also the only female member of the Council for United Civil Rights leadership and was one of the organizers of the March on Washington. The NCNW national headquarters building is named after her.
This exhibit is both highly educational and fascinating. Be sure to get to see it before it closes next January! The Museum of American Finance is at 48 Wall Street; the Museum of UnCut Funk is on-line.