The Alabama Commemorative Half Dollar
Alabama was admitted to the Union as the 22nd state in 1819. One hundred years later, the Alabama Centennial Commission celebrated the anniversary with various local events. Perhaps envious of other states – legislation for a Maine centennial half-dollar was pending – the Commission lobbied Alabama Congressman Lilius Bratton Rainey for a half dollar of their own. Congressman Rainey introduced a bill asking for 100,000 commemorative half dollars on February 28, 1920. The legislation was passed later that year together with two other bills, each authorizing a commemorative issue: the Maine Centennial half-dollar, the Alabama Centennial half-dollar, and the Pilgrim Tercentenary half-dollar.
Political factors delayed the release of the Alabama half-dollar. In June 1920, the Centennial Commission proposed a design to Alabama Governor Thomas Kilby featuring jugate busts of James Monroe and Woodrow Wilson, the Presidents of the United States in 1819 and 1919, respectively. This design proposal also showed the Alabama State Capitol on the reverse, but Commission of Fine Arts member James Earle Fraser (designer of the Buffalo nickel) disliked buildings on coins as a general rule and responded negatively to the design.
The design process was drawn out through the rest of 1920. The fact that a Presidential election was held that year also contributed to the delay. Alabama was then a heavily Democratic state, and there was concern an incoming Republican administration would not permit Wilson (the outgoing Democratic President) to appear on a coin minted under their tutelage. Warren Harding, the Republican candidate, did indeed win the election of 1920 and took office on March 4, 1921.
In June 1921, a new design was proposed featuring Alabama Governors instead of Presidents. James Earle Fraser’s wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, prepared the design following sketches by a cartoonist of a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper. The design was finally approved in September and production began at the Philadelphia Mint in October. This was well after the conclusion of the Alabama centennial celebrations, and the 1921-dated coins are somewhat odd considering the inscriptions “1819” and “1919” appear on the reverse.
In imitation of the new Missouri Centennial half-dollar, which had “24” (Missouri was the 24th state) stamped on some of the coins, a few thousand of the first Alabama half dollars struck were inscribed with a “2X2” on the obverse. The Centennial Commission was aware that this would create a second variety for the collector’s market, and indeed the “2X2” variety remains more valuable today.