Black Lady Liberty Not New
On March 15 the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee recommended designs for the 2017 American Liberty, high relief $100 gold coin and silver medal during a meeting at the U.S. Mint headquarters in Washington, DC.
Their mandate was to select an obverse design with a modern version of Liberty that reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of 21st century America, and a reverse with a contemporary eagle.
The design the committee recommended of an African-American woman wearing a crown of stars, as Paul Gilkes noted, is an homage to the Statue of Freedom that sits at the top of dome of the U.S. Capitol.
As happened last year, when a multicultural liberty design was recommended, the new designs set off a firestorm of criticism of the obverse the committee selected.
Once again most collectors who expressed an opinion said they did not like the design, would never buy the coin or medal, and that it was all part of a politically-motived and politically-correct agenda, a parting salvo perhaps from the first African-American president in history, as some speculated.
But the notion that this project is politically-driven, or that President Obama is behind a push for a black liberty, is patently absurd. The mandate to reflect racial and cultural diversity reflects the fundamental ideals of our nation and is not some kind of directive from the current administration.
Many of the comments written about this topic in the past few days, a number of which have been deeply troubling, have been focused on the fact that Lady Liberty has always been Caucasian, so why change her race?
But it turns out that the model used to represent Lady Liberty by Augustus Saint Gaudens for his celebrated designs for the $20 and $10 gold coins of 1907 and the model for Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar was actually black and was the same person.
Her name was Henrietta (“Hettie”) Eugenia Anderson, born in 1873 in Columbia, South Carolina, who spent most of her life in the part of New York City known as Harlem.
Her identity as the real model for Liberty on these iconic designs by the two most celebrated sculptors in our history was largely hidden until the 1980’s, and it is believed that Saint Gaudens wife and only son played a major role in suppressing that information.
The history is complex since St. Gaudens may have fused features of Hettie with those of his muse and mistress, Davida Johnson, and Weinman, as is well known, was strongly influenced by French artist Oscar Roty’s “Sower” design.
But there is no doubt, as a number of historical sources confirm this, that Hettie Anderson modeled for both sculptors (and had an affair with Weinman), that both men considered her to be a goddess, and that the credit she is due as the model for the most famous Lady Liberty in American numismatic history is even today not well known.
Knowing this history, and that they have been embracing a Liberty based on an African-American model all these years without realizing it, perhaps more collectors will wait and see how the design strikes up, and views on the design may change when people see the coin, which is exactly what happened last year.