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Weak Choices, But Douglass For D.C. Quarter

First, the U.S. Mint nixed "Taxation Without Representation" as the slogan for the D.C. quarter. Now, the Mint has narrowed the choices for the design of the coin's reverse to three figures from the city's history: Benjamin Banneker, Duke Ellington, and Frederick Douglass.

Each has his merits, of course, but this is a weak field. The problem is not any lack of achievement on the part of the candidates; no, it's the tenuousness of their connections to the District, which are important but way too brief (Banneker), an accident of birth that had little meaning in his ultimate accomplishments (Ellington) and almost irrelevant to his greatness (Douglass).

Just as almost every state in the union decided that no one person captured the essence of that place's history and identity, the District should have chosen inanimate symbols to put on the coin that so many people fought so hard to get added to the Mint's state quarters program. (The feds had zero interest in including Washington in the program and the District was added only at the last minute, and only by being lumped, insultingly, into the same category as American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. I kid you not.)

Tennessee's musical instruments, New York's Statue of Liberty, Maine's lighthouse, New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" slogan next to the (since fallen) Man of the Mountain--these are icons that tell something about the place and its spirit.

Even the lame designs--Maryland's generic state capitol building, Texas's simple map--manage to steer clear of imposing on a single person the burden of representing a state's entire history.

But the District settled on three men who, despite their good works, say nothing about Washington except that it is something different from the federal, monumental core. The clear passion within the D.C. government and among many city residents to avoid obvious choices such as the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial is perfectly reasonable: This is the chance to show the rest of the nation that the District is not merely the seat of government, but a distinct community. That's the right impulse, and the "Taxation Without Representation" slogan was the right gesture. But the feds found that to be way too radical. So now the District is trying to make a statement through the selection of one man.

But here's the problem: Benjamin Banneker, an accomplished mathematician and astronomer, indeed was hired in 1791 to assist surveyor Andrew Ellicott in laying out the new city at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. And even more impressive, Banneker, a free black man who was the grandson of an English woman and a freed slave, wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson challenging the then-Secretary of State on the morality of slavery. But Banneker's ties to the District were tenuous: He was born, lived most of his life in, and died in the Baltimore area. His role in laying out the capital city has won him a permanent place in D.C. history lessons in the public schools, but he worked most of his life as a farmer, and his greatest achievement was the popular almanac that he wrote--which had zippo to do with the District.

Duke Ellington is my emotional favorite to be on the coin. He is a truly transformative figure, not merely a hugely popular performer, but, far more important, a composer who turned the blues and early jazz into America's classical music form, creating works in nearly every category of music.

But while Ellington indeed grew up in Washington and got his early education in the parlors of the city's best music instructors and in the barrooms and nightspots of the Black Broadway, as U Street was known in the early years of the 20th century, he left town at the age of 23 and never lived here again. He certainly played U Street and even the White House throughout his career, but he performed no more in Washington than in any other city, and, while I love to explore Ellington's Washington, truth be told, his great achievements all came during his decades in New York. Again, a great figure, with far too skimpy a D.C. connection to be on the quarter.

Which brings us to Frederick Douglass. Born on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Douglass spent the bulk of his career in Rochester, N.Y., where he edited his influential newspaper and wrote two of his three autobiographies. Douglass did move to the District in the 1870s, becoming president of the Freedmen's Bank and recorder of deeds for the D.C. government. But his time in Washington came at the end of an illustrious life, and the great writing and agitation for which he became famous came well before his time in the District. Still, compared to Banneker and Ellington, at least Douglass was prominent in Washington and lived here for a good length of the period in which he was influential. Douglass considered Maryland his true home and often referred to the state as his "own dear native soil."

Douglass is winning the Post's reader poll, reasonably enough, given that not one of the three men listed as options is someone whose great work is symbolic of the city's place in the nation or its sense of self. And Douglass is the most important historical figure of the three: As a writer, orator, and moral voice in the campaign against slavery and for public understanding of the talents and humanity of America's black population, Douglass stands above the other candidates for a spot on the D.C. quarter. It's just too bad that his connection to the District was at best tertiary.

I vote for a do-over, but if that vote, like our slogan, is rejected, I cast a ballot for Douglass. What's your vote?

By Marc Fisher |  May 5, 2008; 7:46 AM ET
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Come on they should have put the mayor for life Marion Barry on the front and Chuck Brown on the back of DC quarter.

And if they are too recent hows about Boss Tweed.

Of the three Duke Ellington. Jazz rules!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 5, 2008 8:11 AM

You must mean Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, who would be an excellent choice.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 5, 2008 8:18 AM

Excellent analysis, Marc, and I second your vote for Douglass.

Posted by: THS | May 5, 2008 9:31 AM

It was the "50 state quarter" program, not "50 state and 1 district". Since they went ahead and expanded beyond the 50 states, why should Puerto Rico and the rest be left off? DC is unique, but it does share a key similarity with the commonwealths and territories (i.e., they're populated non-states), so just because most of you have never heard of the Northern Marianas doesn't mean it's an "insult" to be "lumped in" with them.

Posted by: KR | May 5, 2008 10:21 AM

KR - you must be kidding.
Those are territories, DC's the capital of the country. DC should also be a state. The two are interconnected (you might not have notice that).

It's an intentional insult - and most anybody who has lived in the District is smart enough to know that.

Posted by: Tim from Silver Spring | May 5, 2008 10:57 AM

I vote for Ellington, for the selfish reason that I'm a big music fan. Plus, he lived in D.C. the longest (23 years) of any of the three men, correct?

Posted by: Sir Duke | May 5, 2008 11:07 AM

The suggestion I sent in to the Mayor's appeal for ideas was the Smithsonian "castle" or the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building. I don't know why we can't have something that represents the wealth of art and scientific/educational material we have on display in the Nation's Capital, most of it free for everyone to see. Narrowing it to three men is just too obviously a PC decision.

Posted by: Lee G. | May 5, 2008 11:33 AM

KR is correct. DC is not a state. Its just not.

Posted by: steve | May 5, 2008 11:37 AM

If I were to do it all over again, I would have placed Charles Hamilton Houston on the quarter. Here's why:

*Born in Washington (1895) and lived here much of his life, except for stints at Amherst College, Harvard Law and in the military during World War I
*Architect of the legal principle, used successfully in Brown v. Board of Education, that "separate but equal" was in itself unconstitutional
*Trained many lawyers at Howard U. Law School, all while transforming it from a night school to a full-service law school as its dean
*Known as "the man who killed Jim Crow" because of his involvement in every key civil rights case between 1930 and 1954 (although he died in 1950, Thurgood Marshall used his principles in arguing Brown)

No, not as recognizable as Ellington, Banneker or Douglass, but highly educational and true to the spirit of local DC as well as national Washington.

Posted by: dirrtysw | May 5, 2008 11:47 AM

Mark Plotkin.

Posted by: Geen! | May 5, 2008 11:56 AM

Dirrtysw, I like your suggestion (and your handle!). Although I am disappointed in the choices, I admire Frederick Douglass and think he or Houston are good candidates. I guess I just wish there had been more effort to represent what the district is rather than trying to pick one figure to "represent" us.

Posted by: Lee G. | May 5, 2008 12:32 PM

My vote goes for Frederick Douglas of the current choices. It is unfortunate that we don't have a geographic symbol of the District recognized across the country. DC is our seat of National Government. I see nothing wrong with having a profile of the US Capitol dome on one side, and Walter Washington, DC's first home-rule mayor on the other. Work the DC flag into the mix and the motto "No Taxation Without Representation" does belong in there.

Posted by: Ed Harris | May 5, 2008 12:53 PM

I second your motion, Mr Fisher.

Posted by: Mark B. | May 5, 2008 1:28 PM

Excellent suggestion, Mr. Harris!

Posted by: THS | May 5, 2008 1:36 PM

A few years ago when we had the great District stamp (it was a triangle remember) one of the elements on the stamp was a row of rowhouses from the Shaw neighborhood...they could have totally put something like that on the quarter.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | May 5, 2008 2:06 PM

aren't the Washington monument, the mall, L'Enfant's plan and the confluence of the rivers all recognizable icons of the district? what about the man for whom the city is named himself (even though he lived on the other side of the river), maybe it should just be the other side of George washington's face.

Posted by: sa | May 5, 2008 2:13 PM


You leave us no choice. So, I vote for myself because "the b!tch set me up!"

Posted by: Marion S. Barry | May 5, 2008 3:32 PM

I agree with your analysis Marc. These are somewhat weak choices that only make sense if you conclude that the primary objective was to get an African-American on the quarter. Given the number of dead white guys on all the rest of our currency, it's not a terrible objective, but it's disingenuous to say that these men were selected to represent DC.

I think an image of some victorian rowhouses with an old streetcar going by would better represent DC local history.

Posted by: DC | May 5, 2008 3:53 PM

I agree with Marc. The most dramatic quarters have had iconic images. Heck, even Nebraska found one point above 20' to put on their quarter. [Just kidding Cornhuskers; I grew up in Hastings and remember flat.]

My suggestion: the Jefferson Memorial, ringed with blossoming cherry trees.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | May 5, 2008 4:09 PM

Douglass, of the current choices. Better options:

1. George Washington on the back, with exactly the same profile and dimensions as on the front, because the city is named for him and also just to confuse people

2. A half smoke

3. The Nationals logo and stadium, so that the coin will be ironic when MLB moves the team somewhere else (again)

4. Map-view of the District border, Potomac, and Beltway ringed with the words "More Important Than The Rest Of You"; since people think we believe that anyway, might as well rub it in.

Posted by: CJMiva | May 5, 2008 4:32 PM

The District IS different than the other jurisdictions (American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands).

It was a part of the original 13 colonies, and hence is part of the "posterity" ("All the descendants of a person in a direct line") which the Founders mentioned, and to secure whose Liberty they pledged "their Lives, their Fortunes, and their Sacred Honor."

Northern Marianas and American Samoa? I suppose one COULD make the same argument, but not so much.

DC denizens are tired of being treated as "belonging" to the fifty states in the sense of being chattel property, and demand to be treated as "belonging" to the nation in the sense of being treated as full and equal participants, which is their inalienable (innate, inherent , intrinsic) Right.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 5, 2008 5:12 PM

Instead of Douglass' image, how about his famous home on a hill in Anacostia with it's magnificent view of the Capitol Building in the background- an actual view. That meshes local with federal- which is our greatness & reality! And have Douglass' suggestion for the young- "Agitate. Agitate. Agitate."

Posted by: Cleveland Park | May 5, 2008 5:37 PM

Ellington seems like a slightly livelier choice, but I can't disagree with anything Marc said. Go Freddie D!

Posted by: tTom T. | May 5, 2008 6:16 PM

i agree with the first comment. Chuck Brown and Marion Barry!

Posted by: ceb3d | May 5, 2008 6:27 PM

Rayful Edmond.

Posted by: nah bruh | May 5, 2008 6:29 PM

As a resident born and raised, it seems that the Smithsonian castle would have been a good choice, second Union Station.

Posted by: Clinton Yates | May 5, 2008 8:17 PM

What about Charles Drew?

Posted by: Charles Drew? | May 6, 2008 4:09 AM

I like the idea of the castle, but it's not iconic. Something that symbolizes DC.How about an overhead view of the Mall?


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | May 6, 2008 9:39 AM

John Philip Sousa - born here, grew up here, buried here. Put the American spirit to music.

Of your three choices, Marc, I'd go with Douglass, but Sousa has the local ties that Douglass did not -- and his works are known to every American and represent our nation around the world.

Posted by: music lover | May 6, 2008 9:55 AM

I don't get it. Duke Ellington was born in DC and lived here through his early adulthood -- so why shouldn't DC claim him as one of the district's sons? I mean should New Orleans not claim Louis Armstrong becasue he resided for decades in New York City? I'm not sure I get your point. People move. But moving to another city or state doesn't negate the influence or value of the place where one spent the first few decades of their life.

Posted by: Keith R. | May 6, 2008 10:44 AM

I second the vote for John Philip Sousa. He was born here, lived most of his life here, is buried here and has left an indelible mark on American music as the "March King". Is there anyone who does not recognize "Stars and Stripes Forever" when played, even if they don't know the name. Other memorable/recognizable marches are almost too numerous to mention: "Washington Post", "Semper Fidelis", "Liberty Bell" and on and on.

I think there is no other person as deserving to represent the District.

Posted by: mmcelvaine | May 6, 2008 10:53 AM

What are they doing to my Washington!! First they change Washington Airport to Reagan Nat. and now they want to make Washington a person thing...Because they were black?? I was born in the old Sibely Hosp in 1930 ( two blocks from the Capital), and spent most of my life in and around DC. Both growing up and later employed here. What a great city . The great institutions, I spent many many hours just roaming through it's museums and buildings where the history of our country happened ..It's great history The great people who contributed to it In so many ways.
How about the Smithsonian, or the map on L'Enfant's grave, or the Whitehouse, or Pentagon, or war memorials. The Supreme Court The Library of Congress. How hard would it be find something signifant to represent this great city that has to do with this city that repersents all Americans ??? I have been collecting the State Quarters, but if these type designs ane chosen, I think I will pass these up.

Posted by: C J | May 6, 2008 2:32 PM

WOW! CJ - finally!
As a black woman I couldn't agree more...there have been some wonderfully eloquent points made regarding the lives of these amazing and talented men, but in fairness, so many have contributed to the greatness of the NATIONS capitol that it borders on insulting not to have more varied and inclusive representations of what makes DC - DC

Posted by: samdance88 | May 6, 2008 7:06 PM

CJ - Technically, Washington National airport is in Virginia. It's an interesting poltical distinction amongst friends as to if you call it Reagan or National. I'm a National kinduva guy.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | May 6, 2008 11:23 PM

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Posted by: 6c6vgsjtar | May 9, 2008 9:29 PM

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Posted by: qnwn3y3gvu | May 9, 2008 9:33 PM

All of the quarter choices are terrible.

Posted by: MK | May 20, 2008 2:51 PM

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