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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Reclaiming Our History

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on September 24, 2018

Dr. Isaac Scott Hathaway (1872–1967) was an American educator and artist who was best known for creating more than 100 busts and masks of prominent African Americans. I met Dr. Hathaway shortly after my father, Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr., became president of Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama in 1962.

Dr. Hathaway was the director of ceramics at Alabama State. He also taught art and sculpturing classes at the university.

I attended Alabama State’s Laboratory High School on campus. My interest in art brought me into direct contact with Dr. Hathaway on a frequent basis. About a year after Dr. Hathaway retired in 1963, I heard that he designed a coin for the U.S. Mint. I thought this was super cool and tried to research this matter. However, I could not find anything in our textbooks or in the public library downtown that confirmed this fact.

I asked my father whether it was true and he told me the full story behind this historical event. In 1945, Dr. Hathaway was selected to design coins honoring two African-Americans, becoming the first African-American to design a coin for the U.S. Mint. The first coin was a half dollar bearing the likeness of Booker T. Washington. It was minted from 1946 to 1951. The second coin was a half dollar bearing the likeness of George Washington Carver. It was minted from 1951 to 1954.

My father also told me the U.S. Post Office issued a 10¢ stamp in 1940 in Booker T. Washington’s honor. The stamp was affixed to a “First Day of Issue” envelope, dated April 7, 1940, from “Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.”

He also told me the Post Office issued a 3¢ stamp with George Washington Carver’s image on it. The stamp was affixed to a “First Day of Issue” envelope, dated February 12, 1948, from “Booker T. Washington Birthplace, Virginia.” This stamp was issued to celebrate Washington’s journey in life “from slave cabin to Hall of Fame.”

I was stunned. It seemed surreal in 1964 to confirm that the image of two distinguished African-Americans was actually printed on two sets of U.S. Postal stamps and engraved on two sets of half dollars in national circulation in the 1940s and 1950s. This remarkable achievement occurred many years before the birth of the civil rights era of the mid-1950s and 1960s. Yet, these historical events were completely omitted from the textbooks authorized by the Alabama State Board of Alabama in the 1960s for use in Alabama’s public schools.

After I graduated from law school and passed the Bar exam, I commenced my long search to find and collect these four iconic pieces of American history. It took me nearly 20 years to secure two mint condition, uncirculated Washington-Carver half dollar coins and two Washington-Carver stamps in a pristine condition and affixed to the “First Day of Issue” commemorative envelopes issued by the Post Office.

By way of historical perspective, the Postal Service would not honor another African-American until 1979, when it issued a commemorative stamp honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks’ image would not appear on a U.S. Postal Service stamp until 2013.

Words cannot describe the sense of pride and exhilaration I felt when I acquired the last of the four pieces of my Booker T. Washington-George Washington Carver coin and stamp collection. I reclaimed an important piece of history that had been suppressed during my childhood. In the process, I secured tangible proof that white Americans of interracial goodwill thought enough of two American-Americans educators in Tuskegee to place their likeness on coins and stamps that circulated in the general population while racial segregation and Jim Crow racism reigned unchecked in the South.

Dr. Hathaway made history by designing these two half dollar coins. Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver made history by achieving greatness in higher education research and services at Tuskegee University. The American government honored Washington and Carver by commissioning these commemorative coins and stamps in the 1940s and 1950s. This unprecedented and positive gesture in American history was intentionally omitted from Alabama public school textbooks for decades.

Thankfully, we have been able to reclaim and preserve this important chapter in African-American history. For this, I am grateful.

PHOTO: Dr. Isaac Scott Hathaway was selected to design half dollar coins honoring two African-Americans, becoming the first African-American to design a coin for the U.S. Mint.

PHOTO: Booker T. Washington stamp and commemorative envelope.

PHOTO: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver half dollar coins.

PHOTO: George Washington Carver stamp and commemorative envelope.

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