Maya Angelou makes history as first Black woman on U.S. quarter

People of America, start paying attention to your change.

A new quarter design, featuring a portrait of the legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou, went into circulation on Monday. Angelou is the first African American woman ever to appear on a quarter, and the first in the American Women Quarters Program, which celebrates the accomplishments and contributions made by women to the United States.

Manufactured by the United States Mint—the bureau of the Department of the Treasury that’s responsible for producing U.S. coins—the quarter shows Angelou on the tails side of the coin. Her arms are uplifted against the backdrop of a bird, its wings spread open, and a rising sun inspired by her most famous work and autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

[Photo: US Mint]

Over the next few years, the Mint will issue four more quarters showcasing a diverse group of honorees. These include Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut; Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Nina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood. “Each 2022 quarter is designed to reflect the breadth and depth of accomplishments being celebrated throughout this historic coin program,” Mint deputy director Ventris C. Gibson said in a release yesterday. With the help of the National Women’s History Museum, the U.S. Mint invited the public to submit recommendations for potential honorees, with the requirement that the women must be deceased. (It’s unclear what portion of the new quarters will be dedicated to the women.)

[Photo: US Mint]

The Maya Angelou side of the coin was designed by Emily Damstra, an artist at the Mint who is also behind the design for the Anna May Wong coin. It was sculpted by United States Mint medallic artist Craig A. Campbell. The front of the coin, which has long portrayed George Washington, depicts a portrait of Washington that was inspired by the famed life-mask bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The portrait was originally designed and sculpted in 1932 by one of the most prolific female sculptors of the early 20th century, Laura Gardin Fraser, who entered a competition held by Congress for a new coin to honor the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth. It wasn’t chosen then, but it is now being revived on the backs of all the coins that are part of the American Women Quarters Program.

Women have appeared on U.S. coins before, but they were few and far between. As part of the 50 State Quarters Program, Helen Keller appeared on the 2003 Alabama quarter, and the 2004 Iowa state quarter featured an image of a female teacher. Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement, appeared on a dollar coin back in 1979, and Native American Sacajawea appeared on a golden dollar coin issued in 2000.

The new quarters, meanwhile, were authorized by the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, which passed in January 2021 and allows the Department of the Treasury and U.S. Mint to issue new quarter-dollar coins.  The coins featuring the next honorees will start shipping later this year. Next up is Sally Ride’s coin, set to come out in February, followed by Mankiller’s quarter in the spring.

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