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District Could Use Quarter Change
by David Nakamura

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 its history and identity, the District should have chosen an inanimate symbol to put on the coin, which 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. The District was added only at the last minute, and then was 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) Old 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, Texas's simple map -- steer clear of imposing on a single person the burden of representing a state's entire history.

The District, in contrast, settled on three men who, despite their good works, say little about Washington except that it is more than its federal, monumental core. The D.C. government's desire to avoid obvious choices such as the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial is reasonable: This is the chance to show that the District is not merely the seat of government but a distinct community. The "Taxation Without Representation" slogan would have made that gesture. But the feds found that way too radical. So now the District is trying to make a statement through the face of one man.

But here's the problem: Benjamin Banneker, an accomplished mathematician and astronomer, was hired in 1791 to assist surveyor Andrew Ellicott in laying out the new city. Even more impressive, Banneker, a free black man who was the grandson of an English woman and a freed slave, wrote to Thomas Jefferson challenging the morality of slavery. But Banneker was no Washingtonian: He was born, lived most of his life and died in the Baltimore area. 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. A transformative figure, he was 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. But while Ellington grew up in Washington and got his early education in the nightspots of the Black Broadway, as U Street was known in the early 20th century, he left town at 23 and never lived here again. He performed on U Street and at the White House but played no more here than in any other city. I love to explore Ellington's Washington. His great achievements, though, all came during his decades in New York.

Which brings us to Frederick Douglass. Born on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Douglass spent most 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. Douglass considered Maryland his home, calling the state his "own dear native soil." Still, compared to Banneker and Ellington, at least Douglass was prominent in Washington and lived here for a good chunk of the period in which he was influential.

Not one of these three men produced work that is symbolic of the city's place in the nation or its sense of self. 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 the United States' black population, Douglass stands above his two competitors. It's just too bad 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'm depositing my quarter for Douglass.



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