The Booker T. Washington Memorial half dollar was among the last commemoratives authorized in the “Classic” period. The Congressional authorization was signed on August 7, 1946 the same day as the Iowa Commemorative. The bill was initiated by Mr. S. J. Phillips the president of the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial Commission, who asked congress to include a surcharge on the coins to fund various memorial efforts including the purchase of Dr. Washington’s Original log Cabin birthplace in rural Virginia. The original authorization was for 5,000,000 which Mr Phillips claimed he could sell for $1.00 in “90 days or less” to the “black community”. Unfortunately things didn’t work out quite as well as he had planned.
Over the next 6 years the coins were minted at all three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco). The largest single mintage was the 1946 Philadelphia issue of which 1,000,546 were minted, but according to Breen & Swiatek as many as half of these may have been subsequently melted. Because some of the coins that could not be sold were returned to the Mint for melting and recoining the actual net mintage figures are somewhat uncertain. The mintage figures in the guide book are best guesses at the Net mintage, though there is a note that the 1946 figure of over a million is the original minted quantity and that the number melted is unknown. After the first two years of the program the mintage figures are tiny (~6-8000 at each mint) except the 1950(s) [512,091] and the 1951[510,082]. Again Breen and Swaitek believe that well over half of these coins were returned for melting as well. In all total coins produced were; 1,654,658 plain, 856,234 S and 656,313 D
The coin design process generated it’s share of controversy as well. Originally Dr. Emmett Scott, Dr. Washington’s secretary commissioned Mr. Charles Keck to design the coin. While Mr. Keck was perfecting his design, Mr. Phillips was approached by Isaac Scott Hathaway a black artist who was in possession of a Life Mask of Dr. Washington. Mr. Hathaway volunteered to produce a coin design from the mask for free. Unbeknownced to Keck, Phillips accepted Hathaway’s offer and submitted both designs to the mint and the Federal Commission of Fine Arts. In October of 1946 the commission accepted Hathaway’s Obverse design, but rejected both reverse designs. The final reverse design was based on a sketch by one of the members of the Fine Arts commission.
The Obverse design is a bust of Dr. Washington in ¾ profile facing to the right. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” arches along the top rim and “BOOKER T WASHINGTON” arches along the bottom. The date and “HALF DOLLAR” are in the field to the left of Dr. Washington’s head, while the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is in the field to the Right. The reverse is a very busy design which includes the façade of a building purported to be the New York University Hall of Fame at the top, and a log Cabin at the bottom with the inscription “FROM SLAVE CABIN TO HALL OF FAME” in the middle. The cabin is flanked by “IN GOD WE TRUST” on the left and “FRANKLIN COUNTY VA” on the right. Around the rim is the inscription “BOOKER T WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE MEMORIAL” and at the very bottom the word “LIBERTY” the mintmark is centered below the Slave cabin (see circle)
General Market Notes
In addition to the coins that were sent back to the mint to be melted, many of the unsold coins (particularly 1946, 46s 47 and 51) were simply placed into circulation. Furthermore, Breen and Swiatek are of the opinion that the coins were manufactured on the standard high speed presses with little to no care taken to preserve their appearances/condition. This is evidenced by the fact that most coins are badly nicked and bag marked. The poor quality of the coins was noted in the February 1947 issue of “Numismatist” as many collectors were returning coins to the Memorial Commission. So Gem coins are scarce, and even more so in the years with tiny mintages (48 & 49).