The unique connection a JSU archivist has to Maya Angelou’s new coin

The Maya Angelou quarter is the first in the American Women Quarters program.
The Maya Angelou quarter is the first in the American Women Quarters program.(United States Mint image)
Published: Jan. 14, 2022 at 3:01 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The image of the late author and poet Maya Angelou on American currency has a different meaning to everyone.

The United States Mint announced this week that it’s rolling out a quarter with Angelou on it.

It makes the legendary activist the first Black woman to appear on a U.S. quarter.

The coin design depicts Angelou with outstretched arms. Behind her are a bird in flight and a rising sun.

The images were both “inspired by her poetry and symbolic of the way she lived,” the Mint said.

The image takes Angela Stewart back to November of 1974 when she heard Maya Angelou speak on the campus of Jackson State University.

“She came here and spoke and was very entertaining, very insightful about, you know, what poetry means; not just as a creative expression, but as a plan of action,” Stewart remembered.

Angela, just 12 years old at the time, is now an archivist at Jackson State University, the same place where her mom introduced her to what would become a historical moment.

In the 70s, Stewart’s mom was a student of legendary poet and educator Dr. Margaret Walker, who taught English at JSU and invited Angelou to Jackson.

“Margaret Walker was a mentor and a second mom to many African American poets, both male and female. And, Maya Angelou was one of those poets who considered Margaret Walker, ‘Mama Margaret,’ as some of them would call her,” she said.

As history would have it, the archivist said Dr. Margaret Walker invited Maya Angelou to a poetry festival in 1973, but she couldn’t make it.

“When Margaret Walker reached out to Maya Angelou, she said, Mama, I love you, but I have a conflict that day,” Stewart recalled.

Instead, Angelou visited JSU in 1974, and Angela Stewart remembers her first words to the small community crowd that cold day inside the Jacob L. Reddix Union building.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘I promised Margaret Walker that I was coming, and you don’t break a promise to Margaret Walker,’” Stewart laughed.

Stewart will never forget Maya Angelou’s reading of her memoir, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ which inspired the design of her new quarter.

“To hear her talk about how she learned that you know, I don’t have to tolerate, you know, cages,” Stewart said about Maya Angelou. “I can be free, but I can also sing while I’m waiting to release myself from these cages. So, you know, that imagery [depicted on the quarter] made me think of her actual words when she was here.”

At age 7, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, later beaten to death. The trauma of the rape and her assailant’s death left Angelou mute for six years. She began writing during that silent period and published 36 books throughout her life.

President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2010. She died in 2014 at 86 years old.

But her legacy lives on through her poetry and new currency.

Angela Stewart said Maya Angelou’s new coin acknowledges all women’s contributions and is a symbol of the strength and courage of women.

And like Angelou, she hopes it compels everyone to live lives free of cages.

“History and the arts, literature, they’re more than just things on pages or walls,” Stewart said. “They’re alive and active and we have the power to use it and improve our community.”

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