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US Quarter Featuring Maya Angelou Starts Circulating

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 11, 2022

US quarter featuring Maya Angelou on the reverse side

The US Mint has started shipping a quarter featuring poet & activist Maya Angelou on it.

A writer, poet, performer, social activist, and teacher, Angelou rose to international prominence as an author after the publication of her groundbreaking autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s published works of verse, non-fiction, and fiction include more than 30 bestselling titles. Her remarkable career encompasses dance, theater, journalism, and social activism.

The front of the Angelou quarter features a portrait of George Washington (a slaveowner, I feel it is important to note) that is different from the usual image on regular quarters. The new image was sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser in 1931:

In 1931, Congress held a competition to design a coin to honor the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The original competition called for the obverse of the coin to feature a portrait of George Washington, based on the famed life-mask bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse was to feature a design that was to be “national” in nature.

Laura Gardin Fraser submitted a design that features a right-facing portrait of George Washington on the obverse, while the reverse shows an eagle with wings spread wide. In a 1932 letter to recommend Fraser’s design, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) wrote to (then) Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon:

“This bust is regarded by artists who have studied it as the most authentic likeness of Washington. Such was the skill of the artist in making this life-mask that it embodies those high qualities of the man’s character which have given him a place among the great of the world…Simplicity, directness, and nobility characterize it. The design has style and elegance…The Commission believes that this design would present to the people of this country the Washington whom they revere.”

While her design was popular, it was not chosen. Instead, Secretary Mellon ultimately selected the left-facing John Flannigan design, which has appeared on the quarter’s obverse since 1932.

the obverse side (with George Washington) of a US quarter featuring Maya Angelou on the reverse side

The Angelou quarter is the first in a series of quarters featuring notable American women:

Beginning in 2022 and continuing through 2025, the Mint will issue five quarters in each of these years. The ethnically, racially, and geographically diverse group of individuals honored through this program reflects a wide range of accomplishments and fields, including suffrage, civil rights, abolition, government, humanities, science, space, and the arts. The additional honorees in 2022 are physicist and first woman astronaut Dr. Sally Ride; Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and an activist for Native American and women’s rights; Nina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement and the first female superintendent of Santa Fe public schools; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, who achieved international success despite racism and discrimination.

The Angelou quarter will start circulating later this month and early next month — look for it in your change soon!