Lady Liberty is among the most enigmatic symbols of American democracy. Her qualities are well-known and widely revered: She’s benevolent and represents freedom and hope. But what does she look like, anyway? In popular culture, she's almost always depicted in one way: as a white woman. Now, reports Lakshmi Gandhi for NBC News, the U.S. Mint announced historic plans to depict Liberty as an African-American woman on a new gold coin. The $100 coin will be introduced as part of the kickoff of the mint’s 225th anniversary year and will be the first in a series that will also depict Liberty as Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and Indian-American.
In a release, the U.S. Mint stated it will “depict an allegorical Liberty in a variety of contemporary forms.” Though women of color have always been part of America, their images were absent on past coinage. Sacagawea, a Native-American woman of Lemhi Shoshone descent who helped guide the Lewis and Clark exhibition, has been found on $1 coins since 2000—the only coin to prominently feature a person of color before the new $100 coin.
Only one woman has made multiple appearances on American currency in the past—a woman both allegorical and white. Called both Columbia (to represent the United States) and Lady Liberty, her image has graced all sorts of American coins. Liberty has been portrayed as both a goddess of freedom and peace, a symbol of American promise. And as Gandhi points out, liberty is actually a required part of American coins. The first U.S. Coinage Act, which established the U.S. Mint in 1792, required that all coins have “an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty.” Since then, liberty—as a concept and as a word—has been an indelible part of American coinage.
Despite the dominance of white representations of Liberty in the past, one of Ameria's most famous Lady Liberties has connections to women of color. The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor was based on sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi’s plans for an allegorical representation of an Egyptian peasant woman. However, Barthodi changed those plans and adapted his original design to portray a white goddess instead.
It’s safe to assume that a 24-karat gold coin worth $100 won’t find its way into your change jar any time soon. The New York Times’ Erin McCann notes that they’ll likely sell for far more than face value due to their gold content. But the fact that it exists at all underscores an ongoing shift in American currency. The recent announcement that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 and that Civil Rights Movement leaders and leaders of women’s suffrage would find places on other bills represents a new willingness on the part of the Treasury to include diverse racial and gender representations on American currency.
Though it’s still unclear whether the incoming administration will move ahead with planned changes to U.S. currency, the $100 coin has already been designed and the U.S. Mint is moving ahead with an April 6 release. At least one new Lady Liberty is on her way—and she represents a group of Americans who, despite their role in the story of American freedom, are long overdue for their turn on a coin.