Image of the forthcoming 2017 American Liberty High Relief Gold Coin (all images courtesy the United States Mint)

For the first time, Lady Liberty will appear as a black woman on a US coin, to be released by the United States Mint in April to celebrate the department’s 225th anniversary. A commemorative coin with a $100 face value, the 24-karat gold piece will be the first issued in a series of similar ones that depict the famed figure as non-white, as she is traditionally shown: others, to go on sale every two years, will portray her as Asian American, Hispanic, and Native American “to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” as stated in a press release. The allegorical woman has appeared on American coinage since the late 1790s.

Reverse of the forthcoming 2017 American Liberty High Relief Gold Coin

This forthcoming coin illustrates a woman with dreadlocks tied in a bun, turned to her side with a determined, steadfast expression; decorating its inverse is an eagle in flight. The artist behind the woman’s face is Justin Kunz, a Utah-based painter who also designed a 2014 commemorative silver dollar honoring the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a 2009 one paying tribute to Abraham Lincoln. While the shift in her identity is historic, she still carries some classical trademarks, from her wreath made of patriotic stars and her garment, which appears as a stola.

“The coin demonstrates our roots in the past through such traditional elements as the inscriptions ‘United States of America,’ ‘Liberty,’ ‘E Pluribus Unum’ and ‘In God We Trust,’” the Treasury Department said in a statement. “We boldly look to the future by casting Liberty in a new light, as an African-American woman wearing a crown of stars, looking forward to ever brighter chapters in our Nation’s history book.”

To be precise, the forthcoming release likely marks the first time Liberty is deliberately portrayed and immediately acknowledged as a black woman. As etymologist Barry Popik notes, African-American artist’s model Hettie Anderson supposedly sat for Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Indian Head eagle — minted between 1907 and 1916 – and his famed double eagle coin — produced between 1907 and 1933. She also likely posed for Adolph A. Weinman’s silver, Walking Liberty half dollar — but received no recognition during her lifetime due to the color of her skin.

As far as circulating coins in use today, just one woman of color is represented among the lot: the “Sacagawea” figure on the one-dollar coin. Come 2020, however, it’s Harriet Tubman who will claim a prominent spot on American currency, replacing Andrew Jackson as the face of every freshly printed $20 note.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...