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?
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