Then-President Harry S. Truman authorized a commission for the Mint to jump start the design of a new 50-cent piece. Hathaway received the clearance to design the coin, which featured educator and author Booker T. Washington (pictured right) who was chosen as the coin’s face because Truman wanted “to commemorate the life and perpetuate the ideas and teachings of Booker T. Washington.”
Hathaway’s historic moment was followed up in 1951 with another request to design a commemorative 50-cent coin featuring African-American innovator George Washington Carver, which he was commissioned for.
Hathaway’s life began in Lexington, Ky., raised primarily by his single father. As a boy at age 9, a curious Hathaway visited a museum full of famous White Americans with his father and asked where a bust of his hero, Fredrick Douglas (Hathaway eventually created Douglas’ bust, which can be seen below), could be found. His father told him that there were no trained Black sculptors to craft the busts of famous African Americans. Hathaway then reportedly said to his father, “I am going to model busts of Negroes and put them where people can see them.”
Hathaway would do that and more, after stints at several colleges studying art in Kansas, Ohio, and New York. After completing his studies, he returned to his native Kentucky and became an elementary school teacher, using his extensive art training to both teach and showcase his sculptures.
As his sculptures became noted by residents near the school, he would start a company called “The Afro Art Company,” later switching the name to the “Isaac Hathaway Art Company.”
Hathaway’s work in ceramics and his sculptures of prominent historic figures of African-American lore vaulted him as one of the first individuals to introduce the art of ceramics in college classrooms.
Hathaway may not have the fame associated with his name as many of his heroes that he would go on to make busts for, but he deserves to be recognized for his innovations in art and for his quote where he eloquently said “that the art of a people not only conveys their mental, spiritual, and civic growth to posterity, but convinces their contemporaries that they can best portray in crystallization their feelings, aspirations, and desires.”
We are thankful for Isaac Scott Hathaway, a true art pioneer.