Maya Angelou becomes first Black woman to appear on US quarter

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The US Treasury has minted coins featuring poet Maya Angelou – the first black woman ever featured on the US 25-cent coin known as a quarter.

A new US quarter featuring the late Maya Angelou went into circulation Monday, the US Mint announced, making the legendary poet and activist the first Black woman ever to appear on the coin. The Maya Angelou quarter is the first in the American Women Quarters Program, which will include coins featuring prominent women in American history. Other quarters in the series will begin rolling out later this year and through 2025, the Mint said in a release on Monday.

Angelou, a poet and activist, was the first black woman to write and perform a poem at a presidential inauguration.

The poet, writer, author and social activist, who died in 2014  at the age of 86, was the author of ground-breaking autobiography in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote about the racial discrimination she experienced growing up in the Deep South. The author of 36 books – and the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees. She read her poem on the Pulse of the Morning at Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award –  by Barack Obama in 2010.

Coins are planned for other pioneering women, including an astronaut, a tribal chief and an actress – as part of the American Women Quarters programme.

The new quarter depicts Angelou with open and outstretched arms. Behind her is a flying bird and rising sun, which are “inspired by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived”, the US treasury department said.

The front side of the quarter shows the traditional bust of George Washington, the country’s first president. George Washington’s visage is on the “heads” side, while the “tails” side honors Angelou by evoking one of her most famous works, the autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

The new 25-cent coin features Angelou from the waist up, with her arms uplifted, a bird in flight and a rising sun behind her — “images inspired by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived,” according to the U.S. Mint. To her right are the words “E Pluribus Unum,” the Latin phrase for “Out of Many, One” that is featured on the national seal. The designer was Emily Damstra and it was sculpted by Craig A. Campbell. It was issued in 2022 and minted at the United States Mints in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.

“Each time we redesign our currency, we have the chance to say something about our country — what we value, and how we’ve progressed as a society,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a separate statement. “I’m very proud that these coins celebrate the contributions of some of America’s most remarkable women, including Maya Angelou.”

The US Mint invited the public to submit names of women they view as American icons. The bureau welcomed entries of women known for their work in civil rights, science and the arts, among other areas, with an emphasis on women from “ethnically, racially and geographically diverse backgrounds.” The only requirement was that the women who appear on the coins must be deceased.

The agency will issue four other quarters this year, with the others honoring Sally Ride, the first female US astronaut; Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation and a campaigner for indigenous rights;  Anna May Wong, who is considered the first Chinese-American film star in Hollywood, and suffragette and politician Nina Otero-Warren.

Lawmakers cheered the release of the new coin on Monday and credited Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, with the achievement. Lee introduced the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, which passed in January 2021 and ultimately paved the way for the creation of these new coins.

“The phenomenal women who shaped American history have gone unrecognized for too long — especially women of color,” Lee said in a tweet. “Proud to have led this bill to honor their legacies.”

The US Mint plans to issue 20 more quarters over the next four years, depicting other American women who played important roles in the country’s history.

Plans to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with black abolitionist Harriet Tubman – who rescued enslaved people through the Underground Railroad – are still in the works.

Historical women have rarely featured on US currency.

In the 19th Century, the first US First Lady, Martha Washington, was on the $1 silver certificate and Native American heroine Pocahontas was in a group picture on the $20 bill.

On coins, Sacagawea, a Native American explorer, appears on the gold dollar. Suffragist Susan B Anthony and deaf-blind activist Helen Keller appeared on the silver dollar and Alabama quarter respectively.

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