Collectors of classic US commemorative coins are familiar with the 1921 Alabama Statehood Centennial half dollar and the fact that the coin was the first US coin to depict a living person - Thomas Erby Kilby, the Governor of Alabama from January 20,1919 to January 15, 1923. What few collectors realize is that neither William Wyatt Bibb nor Kilby, the two men depicted on the coin, were part of its original design!
The original reverse design proposed by the Alabama Centennial
Commission did feature conjoined portraits, just as on the struck coin, but the two men to be depicted were James Monroe, US president at the time Alabama joined the Union in 1819 and Woodrow Wilson, US president at the time of Alabama's centennial in 1919. The obverse side of the coin was to depict the Alabama State Capitol and the year of striking.Interesting Side Note: At the time, the Commission, and Mint, considered the twin portraits side of the coin to be its reverse, with the other side - the one originally designated to feature the date of striking - to be the obverse. Of course, this changed on the coins actually struck, with the date being moved and placed below the portraits, thus officially making it the obverse.
The approved legislation that authorized the half dollar, in May 1920, did not place any calendar limits on the coin. It did not indicate a year during which the coin had to be struck, the date that had to be placed on the coins nor the number of years the coin could be struck. The legislation simply stated that, "as soon as practicable," the US Mint was to strike the commemorative pieces for the Alabama Commission.
Unfortunately for the Commission, the Mint did not get around to striking the first batch of Alabama coins until October 1921 - months after Warren G. Harding had succeeded Wilson as president.
In June 1921, the Commission contacted the Mint about its coin and included new design drawings that changed the coin's portraits. Believing that with Wilson no longer in office, the coin's use of US presidents as central elements of its "then and now" design was less meaningful, it decided to switch the design from US presidents to Alabama governors. Exit Monroe and Wilson, enter William Wyatt Bibb - Alabama's first governor after it became a state (and its last territorial governor) - and Thomas Erby Kilby, the governor of Alabama at the time of its centennial and, importantly, still its governor in 1921! The new proposed design also switched out the Capitol building for the Alabama Seal, in response to the objection raised by James Earle Fraser
, the sculptor member of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) - the independent body tasked with reviewing new coin designs.
Laura Gardin Fraser prepared the models for the new designs and they were soon given the approval of the CFA. The US Mint created the coinage dies and struck the coins in three batches in late 1921. In the end, Alabama got its 1919 centennial coin in 1921 based on legislation approved in 1920. Makes perfect sense, right!?
Had the Mint struck the Alabama half dollars in a more timely manner (e.g., at some point between June and December 1920), Woodrow Wilson likely would be the first living person to be depicted on a US coin vs. Alabama Governor Thomas E. Kilby and he would have beaten Calvin Coolidge to the honor of being the first living US President on a US coin; Coolidge's portrait did not appear until the 1926 Sesquicentennial of American Independence commemorative half dollar when he was depicted along with George Washington.Read More: Commems Collection