Booker T. Washington Fan, ca. 1945In the early 1940s, the U.S. Congress chose Booker T. Washington, the acclaimed author and educator, as the first black person to be depicted on an American postage stamp, and coin, a “commemorative,” noncirculating silver half-dollar. While acknowledging the need to cast African American accomplishment in a positive light, Congress chose a relatively conservative leader, known as much for appeasing white power as for resisting it; Washington called for compromise rather than protest, rejecting the forceful activism of such early civil rights leaders as the abolitionist orator and statesman Frederick Douglass.
Booker T. Washington MNH Plate Block, 1940
U.S. Commemorative Half Dollar―Booker T. Washington, 1946 (obverse)
U.S. Commemorative Half Dollar—Booker T. Washington, 1946 (reverse)
Coins: 1 3/16 in. diameter
Stamps: 3 5/16 x 2 1/4 in.
Collection of Civil Rights Archive/CADVC-UMBC, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005.1, 2005.54, 2005.27
While Congress authorized a stamp in 1948 to honor the botanist George Washington Carver, Washington’s loyal colleague at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, it would take it decades to honor less conciliatory figures: Douglass (1967), Harriet Tubman (1978), the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979), Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1981), Du Bois (1992), and Malcolm X (1999). To date, no African American has appeared on U.S. circulating legal tender, either on printed currency or coins.