Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington has done something that no other African American has ever done. The jazz legend became the first to appear solo on circulating U.S. currency today when the U.S. Mint unveiled his image on the new District of Columbia quarters.
“Like many great Americans who succeed in what they love doing, Duke Ellington was equal parts talent, hard work, passion, and perseverance,” said U.S. Mint director Ed Moy during a ceremony at the National Museum of American History. “When Americans look at this coin, they will remember the man and his art, as well as the place where both were born and nurtured — the District of Columbia.”
The D.C. coin features Ellington seated at a grand piano with the inscriptions, “District of Columbia,” “Duke Ellington,” and “Justice for All,” the district’s motto. Members of the Ellington family were on hand to celebrate the release of the quarter, and members the Duke Ellington High School Jazz Band performed at the ceremony.
Ellington may be the first African American to solo on the coin, but York, a slave who assisted with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803-1806 was depicted on the 2003 Missouri coin with the explorers.
The new quarter was issued through a program similar to the 50 state quarters program that honored each state in the order it was admitted into the union. Since the District of Columbia isn’t a state, it wasn’t allowed to participate in the program. However, the Mint plans to honor D.C., along with Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands in 2009.
“Like the 50 state quarters program before it, these new quarters will encourage Americans to appreciate the unique history of theDistrict of Columbia and the territories of the United States,” Moy said late last year.
Ellington was born into a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. in 1899, and started piano lessons at the age of seven. He lived in Washington until 1923, when he moved to New York City. He died in May 1974.
D.C.’s coin design committee solicited and reviewed more than 300 design concepts from the public, narrowing the choice down to three, which were sent to the United States Mint for final artistic renderings. The three concepts included Ellington; Benjamin Banneker, who assisted with the original D.C. boundary survey; and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Ellington design was recommended through a public vote, with the secretary of the treasury approving the design in 2008.
The quarter was actually released to the public on Jan. 26. The coin’s reverse was designed by Joel Iskowitz, U.S. Mint master designer, and sculpted by Don Everhart. Circulating coins are those minted for general circulation.