The wait is over. We now know that the redesigned $20 bill will feature former slave, abolitionist, and women’s suffrage fighter Harriet Tubman. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made the announcement yesterday ending over a year of speculation and following a million public comments on which woman should claim the honor of being the face of our currency.
Last summer, the Treasury announced plans to include both a woman and Alexander Hamilton on the redesigned $10 bills, scheduled to arrive in 2020 to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote.
Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 and suffered heinous treatment at the hands of various masters. She ran away to Philadelphia (and freedom) following the North Star by night. She later went back to save her sister’s family and subsequently conducted thirteen rescue missions to free over 70 enslaved families and friends using a network of anti-slavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. This devout Christian woman earned the name “Moses,” but her effectiveness made her a target by angry slave owners who posted rewards for her capture.
Later, Tubman served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and became the first women to lead an armed expedition which liberated more than 700 slaves. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement until she became ill and died.
Most people probably didn’t know all of Tubman’s history when they voted her as their pick, but as Lew explains, she stands for core American values and beliefs:
“Americans care deeply about both the look and feel of their currency and the story each note tells,” Lew told reporters. “The feedback that we received helped shape a decision that was far more exciting than anticipated.”
Tubman helped tens of thousands of slaves escape to freedom before the end of the Civil War. She also spied during the Civil War for the Union army.
“It’s a story that both reflects American values, American democracy,” Lew said of Tubman. “So much of what we believe has changed for the better in our country is represented by her story."
Some black activists think the selection of Tubman is wrong precisely because it does reflect well upon a country that has had the courage and moral fiber to change:
As chatter grew about why Tubman should become the first woman to grace our paper currency — accompanied by a simultaneous activist-run web campaign to get a woman on the $20 bill — writer Feminista Jones presented a controversial counter-argument in an essay that went viral. There’s no place for women, especially women of color, she asserted, on America’s money.
Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets. She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves. She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them. I do not believe Tubman, who died impoverished in 1913, would accept the “honor.”
But there are more sympathetic views:
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, saw the development as positive. Tubman wasn’t against money, she said. She spent it to pry others from slave owners.
“She used hers to go back into a place where she had a bounty on her head,” Higginbotham said. “It says something about how she thinks about money. She used money as a way to help mankind.”
Harriet Tubman is an interesting choice for the $20 bill and we are glad that the honor goes to such a worthy American women. . Whether revisionist history is the motivation behind using her to replace Jackson is speculation, but we are proud to see a woman, who fought for the freedom of masses of people and the equality of opportunity for both blacks and women, honored by giving her a place on one of our most-circulated bills.
The opportunity that freedom gave Tubman, allowed her set others free. She single-handedly drove progress well before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Faith and courage place her in our nation’s hall of fame. This generation and those to come should think of these virtues each time we take a $20 bill from our wallets. We must continue to fight to protect our freedoms and for equality of opportunity as Tubman did.