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The Last Classic Commemorative Coin: The Washington-Carver Half Dollar

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1951 50C Washington-Carver, PCGS MS67. Click image to enlarge.

The Booker T. Washington-George Washington Carver Half Dollar marked the end of the line for the classic commemorative coin series that began in 1892 and wended through more than 60 years of various colorful designs, ostentatious release ceremonies, and scandalous financial abuses. The Washington-Carver Half Dollars emerged in 1951 effectively as a continuation of a Booker T. Washington Commemorative Half Dollar program that launched in 1946 but labored to gain any meaningful attention from the numismatic public.

Sales of the coin quickly slumped following an initial burst of public interest. Dr. Sidney J. Phillips, who was the president of the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was hard-pressed to liquidate the many thousands of remaining Booker T. Washington Half Dollars remaining on hand before August 7, 1951, per a clause in the authorizing legislation stipulating a five-year production window for the coin. The public was unenthusiastic about the coin, which would help fund memorials to be built in honor of Washington and his broadly popular socioeconomic teachings.

With the aim to continue raising funds for memorials to Washington, Dr. Phillips helped gather steam for new legislation providing for a commemorative half dollar that would raise funds “to oppose the spread of Communism among Negroes, in the interest of the national defense,” a phrase that surely garnered wide support during the early Cold War period. In an era when anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy, an outspoken Wisconsin United States senator, was leading witch hunts for “Commies,” the bill partly arranged by Dr. Phillips passed with relative ease on September 21, 1951, and the Washington-Carver Half Dollar was born.

The coin is anchored by a jugate obverse portrait of agricultural chemist George Washington Carver and educator and Tuskegee Institute Principal Booker T. Washington; the reverse features an austere geographical outline of the United States superimposed by the inscription “USA,” and the device is encircled with the phrases “FREEDOM AND OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL” and “AMERICANISM U.S.A.” The coin was designed by Isaac Scott Hathaway, a gifted black artist who had also drafted the preceding Booker T. Washington Half Dollar.

By the end of 1951, the Washington-Carver Half Dollar was rolling off the presses at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints. They were issued at $5.50 per individual coin or $10 for a set of three, and these coins were sold through Stack’s, Bebee’s, and R. Green of Chicago, with distribution eventually reaching banks around the country. Large numbers of these coins didn’t sell at their original issue prices and were eventually furnished to the public at much lower prices – often only face value.

In total, 12 different issues were struck, three from each of the mints during the four years this type was in production. A highwater mark was reached in 1952 with the Philadelphia Mint striking 2,006,000 examples that year, though most issues saw much smaller mintages; 110,000 were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1951, with 10,000 more that year from each the Denver and San Francisco Mints. Most of the issues that followed were produced in numbers of 12,000 per mint or fewer, with the exceptions of 108,000 examples of the 1953-S and 122,000 for the 1954-S. Distribution numbers came nowhere close to meeting total mintage figures, and in all more than 1 million Washington-Carver Half Dollars met a sad fate in the melting pot.

While some may speculate why these particular commemorative coins did not sell as well as hoped in the 1950s, the fact is many numismatists by that point had grown fatigued by the numerous United States commemorative coins. The absence of a sellout for the Washington-Carver Half Dollars (or Booker T. Washington Half Dollars) was anything but unique to those issues.

Many of the commemorative coins released during the preceding 15 years had failed to see distributions exhaust available supplies. And the powers that be at the United States Mint came to grips with the situation, too. By the 1950s, commemorative coins had lost their luster – tarnished in large part by financial abuses committed by various organizations that were involved with many of the commemorative coins struck since the 1930s.

The curtains drew on the Washington-Carver Half Dollar in 1954, marking the end of the show for the series now known as collectively as Classic Commemorative Coins. The United States Mint would not strike another commemorative coin until 1982, following the passage of an entire generation and only after witnessing the overwhelming success of the United States Bicentennial Coin program of the 1970s.

The Washington-Carver Half Dollar was struck with little in the way of special handling, and the coins were distributed in cellophane packages and cardstock holders. Many of these coins exhibit moderate to heavy bag marks, nicks, and other types of abrasions, and they are seen with finishes ranging from dull to proof like. Whether aiming to collect a single specimen as a type representative or going for the full set of a dozen pieces, collectors should seek the best quality they can find and afford.

A small percentage of these coins exist in circulated grades, but the vast majority are known in grades of MS63 through MS65. They become conditional rarities at grade points north of there. Any issues graded PCGS MS67 or PCGS MS68 are elusive rarities, with prices ranging in the four and even five figures, depending on the individual issue and the grade of its finest representatives.

To date, the price record for the Washington-Carver Half Dollar type goes to a PCGS MS67+ 1953-S accompanied by a Certified Acceptance Corporation sticker, a piece that commanded $20,562.50 in a 2014 Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction. While such high-grade specimens make terrific show-and-tells for the Classic Commemorative PCGS Registry Sets, collectors on more limited budgets need not fret about the prospect of collecting the Washington-Carver Half Dollars. Typical specimens in the MS63 to MS65 range are more modestly priced between $50 and $100 apiece.

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Silver Commemoratives