Growing up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, Deborah Clark, who now goes by the professional name Deborah LaPearl, was laughed at when she would tell her friends and family that one day a black man would be the president. But she was sure, she insisted, because the night after seeing Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech on television, she saw it in her own dream.
“I didn’t know who he was, or would be, I guess,” she said. “But I knew there would be a black president, because I saw him.”
Years later, in 2007, the Weehawken-based fashion and jewelry designer was walking down a Manhattan street when she saw Barack Obama’s face on a cover of Esquire magazine.
“I remember saying out loud, ‘That’s him!’ to no one in particular,” she said. “People must have thought I was crazy.”
“I wanted to create something special that someone could have and hand down to their children. Something like an heirloom.” – Deborah LaPearl
“No one thought he’d beat Hillary [Clinton in the primary],” she said. “But he did.”
The bill became a huge seller, and was even featured in this newspaper.
So naturally, when it came time for Obama to face Mitt Romney for a second term last year, LaPearl began brainstorming.
“I was right the first time, and even more sure this time,” she said.
After creating the commemorative bill in for the president’s 2008 victory, LaPearl was initially unsure of what to create for what she felt would be his inevitable 2012 election.
“I wanted to create something special that someone could have and hand down to their children,” she said. “Something like an heirloom.”
The Obama bill wasn’t the only currency she had in her past. In 2009, after Obama’s first win, she had designed a medal commemorating the victory and had showcased it at jewelry conventions, where it received positive feedback. Replicas of the medal were sent to Nelson Mandela and the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The medal led to the idea of a commemorative coin bearing Obama’s likeness.
“The idea behind the medal was that Obama had won the election. He was a winner. Winners think like champions, and champions are winners,” she said.
So she created a coin to represent the second term.
“The coin is meant to represent and preserve Obama’s legacy,” she said. “Whatever he does from now through his second term will be his legacy.”
After designing the coin, which is available in gold, silver and bronze, LaPearl was unsure of how to market it. Still, after comparing it to other commemorative coins being produced around the same time and for the same purpose, she was confident her design would be well-received.
“I thought mine looked a little bit more like [Obama] than some of the others,” she said.
The inauguration trip
Apparently, LaPearl wasn’t the only person who thought so. Since one of the various organizations throwing balls in honor of the president’s second inauguration might want to give out the coins as party favors, LaPearl sent the coin to The Root, a African-American politics and culture magazine published by prominent academic and civil rights activist Henry Louis Gates Jr. She got a response, along with an invitation to personally hand out the coins at the ball.
So, in January, LaPearl headed to Washington D.C. to watch the man she saw in a dream decades ago take his second oath of office, and then to distribute the art she created to honor him to some of his biggest supporters, including Gates himself, actor Chris Tucker, and United States Attorney General Eric Holder.
She was offered a VIP ticket to the inauguration, but declined, opting instead to venture into the standing-room-only sections.
“I wanted to be with the people,” she said. “People came from all over to see it, just like me, so I wanted to stand with them.”
She said The Root’s inaugural ball was also a special experience.
“I felt like the world had finally come around to what it’s supposed to be like,” she said. “These people were there celebrating a man who encourages liking people for being people, not for liking people based on race.”
Just recently, LaPearl received a letter from Michelle Obama, thanking her for the coin she had sent to the White House. LaPearl described it as one of the most special moments of her life, and wasn’t one bit disappointed the president didn’t respond himself.
“I knew Barack would be busy,” she said.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org