A new US quarter featuring the late Maya Angelou went into circulation this week, 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.
The new coin still features George Washington’s visage 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.”
To be specific, the obverse (heads) depicts a portrait of Washington, originally composed and sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser to mark Washington’s 200th birthday. A recommended design for the 1932 quarter, then-Treasury Secretary Mellon ultimately selected the familiar John Flannigan design.
The reverse (tails) depicts Angelou with her arms uplifted. Behind her are a bird in flight and a rising sun, images inspired by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived.
Lawmakers cheered the release of the new coin 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 last year and ultimately paved the way for the creation of these new coins…with rollouts continuing through 2025.
To help decide who to feature, 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 agency will issue four other quarters this year, with the others honoring Sally Ride, an astronaut who was the first American woman in space; Asian American actress Anna May Wong; Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller and suffragette and politician Nina Otero-Warren.
Dr. Angelou was a celebrated writer, performer, and social activist. She rose to international prominence as an author after the publication of her groundbreaking autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s published works of verse, non-fiction, and fiction include more than 30 bestselling titles.
Angelou’s remarkable career encompasses dance, theater, journalism, and social activism. She appeared in Broadway and off-Broadway plays, including “Cabaret for Freedom,” which she wrote with Godfrey Cambridge. At the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she served as northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1978, she was a National Book Award judge for biography and autobiography.
Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1992 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Angelou’s reading marked the first time an African American woman wrote and presented a poem at a presidential inauguration. She was also only the second poet in history to do so, following Robert Frost, who recited a poem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Angelou received more than 30 honorary degrees and was inducted into the Wake Forest University Hall of Fame for Writers. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also the 2013 recipient of the Literarian Award, an honorary National Book Award for contributions to the literary community.