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Maya Angelou Is Now the First Black Woman to Appear on a U.S. Quarter

Ellen Gutoskey
Maya Angelou at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2010.
Maya Angelou at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2010. / Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
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In Congress’s Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, the U.S. Mint was authorized to develop a new series of quarters that highlighted important women from U.S. history. The first coins in this American Women Quarters Program have now officially shipped, The Washington Post reports. They feature Maya Angelou, making her the first Black woman ever depicted on a U.S. quarter.

It’s not the only time the federal government has honored the writer, who passed away in 2014 and is perhaps best known for her earliest memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She became the first female and first Black inaugural poet when she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration; and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. She’s also earned plenty of accolades outside the government, too, including scores of literary awards and the distinction of having one of Mattel’s ‘Inspiring Women’ Barbies made in her likeness.

Maya Angelou on her quarter.
Maya Angelou on her quarter. / United States Mint image

“As a leader in the civil rights movement, poet laureate, college professor, Broadway actress, dancer, and the first female African American cable car conductor in San Francisco, Maya Angelou’s brilliance and artistry inspired generations of Americans,” California congresswoman Barbara Lee, who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “If you find yourself holding a Maya Angelou quarter, may you be reminded of her words, ‘be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.’”

Angelou’s image, with arms outspread before a rising sun and a bird in flight, is on the tails side of the coin. The heads side still depicts George Washington in profile, but it’s not the image you’re used to. This one was created by acclaimed sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser in 1931: It was her submission to a coin-designing competition organized by Congress for Washington’s 200th birthday. Fraser lost out to John Flannigan, whose design has been used on quarters since 1932.

Laura Gardin Fraser's George Washington.
Laura Gardin Fraser's George Washington. / United States Mint image

Fraser’s rendering of Washington will decorate the heads sides of all the quarters in the American Women Quarters Program. Upcoming tails will feature other women with notable “firsts” to their names, including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female principal chief; Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star; and Nina Otero-Warren, Sante Fe’s first female public school superintendent.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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