In Discovering Frederick Douglass, we looked at how Frederick Douglass and his legacy marks Rochester, especially as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Today, Michael J. Nighan offers another lesser known example of Douglass’ historical impact. Of note, Michael owns a Douglass Twenty Dollar note.
In Douglass We Trust
Frederick Douglass has been honored on monuments, has had bridges, streets and parks named after him, has been the subject of numerous books, and has been depicted in plays, movies and even on postage stamps. But perhaps the most unusual form of recognition he’s received was to be featured on a $20 bill.
Back in 1990, Derric Price, an African American investment banker in Chicago, was looking for a way to promote the retention of consumer dollars within the black community. His idea was to create a special currency that would encourage residents to make their purchases at neighborhood businesses rather than at “big box” or chain stores.
Working from the concept that, “the only color of freedom is green”, Price set up the African American Face Reserve Obligation (A.F.R.O.) which printed special currency in denominations of $1.00, $5.00, $10.00 and $20,00, featuring likenesses of historical and cultural icons; Booker T. Washington, Louis Armstrong, George Washington Carver, and Frederick Douglass. Designed to resemble US currency, in Douglass’ case, his portrait appeared on the front of the $20 bill, with a drawing of Cedar Hill, his home in Washington, DC, on the reverse.
AFRO Dollars were to be available at designated banks (exchanged on a one-one basis for US dollars) but would only be usable at participating neighborhood businesses. Each business, in return for the increased sales they were expected to garner, would pay Price a commission of 2.90% on purchases, out of which he would donate back 1/3 for a community trust fund to finance civic improvement projects, and as venture capital for small businesses. In addition, consumers using AFRO dollars would earn “loyalty points” which could be redeemed for gifts ranging from food items to luxury automobiles.
By early 1991 Price claimed to have printed $70,000,000 in AFRO currency and to be successfully signing up Chicago banks and businesses, with plans to expand the project nationwide and to have over a billion AFRO dollars in circulation by the end of the year. However, for various reasons (not the least being the fact that AFRO dollars could be easily counterfeited) the program failed to get off the ground and the already-printed currency was either destroyed or ended up as collector’s items.
However, refusing to be permanently discouraged, Price announced last December that he has dusted off his program and plans to roll it out in a digital cash format, to be called AFRO Dollar Mobile Cash. Unfortunately, as no physical currency will be utilized, Douglass and the others will have to be content with making an occasional appearance on eBay.