African American Liberty portrait recommendation draws criticism

?The recent decision by members of both the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the Commission of Fine Arts to recommend a portrait of an African American woman as the Liberty figure for the 2017 American Liberty silver medal and gold coin has been polarizing, to put it mildly. A lot of collectors are not at all supportive; many of them loathe the idea — and they have not been shy in their comments at Coin World’s Facebook page and in their email to me.

Supporters of the decision and the design have been a distinct minority; I estimate that some 80 percent or so of those commenting fall into the “anti” camp, with about 20 percent welcoming the recommendation (and I count myself among the latter; a wrongheaded decision, some readers have told me).

For those who like the idea, introducing new concepts of Liberty not necessarily rooted in ancient Greek art is a wonderful way of recognizing the immense diversity of our nation. As one writes, “It’s about time our money reflects the beauty of America’s racial diversity.”

The opposition to the design seems to fall into three or four or more categories, with some crossover. Some just don’t like the design on aesthetic grounds. Others are rejecting the design without explicitly saying why. Then there are those who call the idea of an African American Liberty “politically correct garbage,” or another example of an America changing into something they don’t support. Others see the abandoning of the classical Liberty, with its roots in Europe, as tossing tradition out the window. Still others point fingers at President Obama or the U.S. Mint as being responsible, though that is not accurate, as one person intimately involved in the decision explains.

Heidi Wastweet is a talented sculptor and medalist, and a member of the CCAC. In the March 27 issue of The E-Sylum, the weekly electronic newsletter of the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, she discusses the origins of the American Liberty gold coin and silver medal program, which made its debut in 2015. Some of her comments follow.

She writes: “The High Relief Liberty series is not Congress driven. It was [a] program recommended by CCAC and adapted by the Mint as is allowed in the Mint parameters.

“That seems to be common notion that there was some kind of directive saying we were told to do an African American Liberty, or that Obama pushed this agenda or that it is an attempt at radical political correctness. (I’ve been reading the online comments). The truth is much simpler — We members of the CCAC wanted a new medal series to stimulate artistic freedom and creativity and therefore create more interest in collecting. ...”

She added: “Last year we chose a standing Liberty that was not distinctly caucasian but not specifically any particular race. It was just a solid beautiful design. This year we had many submissions again as you saw and this is the one that got the most votes. There was no direction to choose a black Liberty. The CCAC and the CFA thought this was simply the most intriguing design of the group. 

“We also asked the Mint to save all the designs that received 10 or more points and add those to the submissions for next year. That group includes another African American face, an Asian face and several more caucasian or non-distinct nationalities. I hope that people will come to look at this series as a whole … a beautiful diverse series.”

Lest you think that the CCAC is some stereotypical “Washington elites” organization out of touch with the coin collecting community, be aware that the membership is dominated by the numismatic community. Of the 11 current members, 10 are coin collectors, numismatists, or medal/coin designers. “They” are “us.” Some on the panel have been coin collectors for decades; many are award-winning writers, researchers, and artists. Not all of the current members served on the panel when the American Liberty program was first proposed, but the current domination of the CCAC by the collecting community has always been present.

So why are so many collectors so strongly opposed to the design decision? Why are so many of them so angry about the proposal?

Some of the anger seems very similar to the anger being expressed in the current presidential campaign, as voiced by both candidates and followers. One only has to follow the daily news to know that the current campaigns have had their ugly moments. Some of those angry about the CCAC/CFA decision seem to be tapping into that same well of anger, aimed at a changing America, an abandonment of tradition, and a climate of what they perceive as political correctness run amuck.

Getting back to those opposing the design, there is one more category — one with racist undertones — that I and others have found to be especially disheartening. Overtly racist comments have been in a minority, thankfully, but some of those favoring the design have called out what they see as racism in other postings. And this leads to my next observation.

America is changing. We’re becoming much more diverse on many levels, and while some in the nation are upset with those changes, census studies suggest that those changes are not going to stop. But is the coin collecting community keeping pace with greater America?

It’s no secret that the hobby (collectors and dealers alike) has long been dominated by older white men (like me; I’m aged 62) and that as the community ages, it is not being replaced at the same rate by younger collectors and dealers. Hobby leaders are worried about declining club membership, declining numbers of dealers, declining advertising space and revenue and editorial space in the numismatic publications. We’d all like to see the hobby grow and expand. But can that happen if white men continue to represent 90 percent of the hobby?

The hobby needs to diversify. We need new collectors, new dealers. And we should seek to welcome people who fall outside of the current collector community demographics. Unfortunately, though, the level of anger directed at more diverse representations of Liberty isn’t very welcoming. If you were a young black woman, say, happening upon the Coin World Facebook page, how would you feel if you saw so much vitriol directed at a coin design showing someone who might look like you? You probably wouldn’t stick around.

In the meantime, I welcome your comments. If you don’t like the CCAC/CFA decision, I’d like to know why. We’ll consider comments for publication in Coin World, but please, keep your comments civil. You can reach me at or at 937-498-0853.