By Robert Grand
Great art is timeless, but also inevitably tied to the time in which it was produced. Many coins are miniature works of art and as such, reveal the ideals and prejudices of the time in which they were minted.
Today, as we struggle with issues of social justice, and particularly as we examine the role of civil war monuments and what they signify to Black Americans (indeed all Americans), it may be instructive to examine a coin issued in 1925 known as the Stone Mountain commemorative half dollar.
On the obverse (heads), the coin depicts Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee on horseback. On the reverse (tails), there is an eagle and the words “Dedicated to the valor of the Confederate soldier.” The money raised from the sale of the coin was to be used to finance carving the figures portrayed on the coin on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia near Atlanta.
The project quickly became controversial. Besides the financial irregularities that occurred in the sales of the coins, there was the fact that the coin was promoted to Congress as being not only a memorial to Confederate bravery but also as a memorial to President Harding, who had recently died. This made the proposed coin more palatable to Northern congressmen, and thus the coin was authorized. (The reverse design was later altered by order of then-President Coolidge, and no mention of Harding was on the coin as issued.)
The artist of the coin was Gutzon Berglum. He was hired to sculpt the figures of Jackson and Lee on Stone Mountain. Mr. Berglum, however, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and espoused “Nordic Superiority.” He was clearly a racist and was ultimately fired from the monument project, which was finally completed in 1964. He was later hired to sculpt Mt. Rushmore!
The coin reflects the times, and it is a reminder of just how institutionalized racism was in 1925. The question is, in our hearts, where are we today?
This “Viewpoint” was written by Robert Grand, a collector from Springfield, Mo.
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