Honoring Tubman

Harriet Tubman to Replace 

Andrew Jackson on $20 Bill

By Cheryl Eichar Jett


Tubman in the late 1860s. B.F. Powelson photo
    (RP News) - Feb 10, 2021 - Thanks to President Joe Biden's administration, the image of abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman is once again slated to grace the front of the U.S. $20 note, with Andrew Jackson moving to the back side of the bill, a symbolic move not lost on activists and history fans.

During the last year of the Obama administration, then-Secretary of the Treasury Jacob “Jack” Lewis announced the move, which was intended not only to reflect the history and diversity of the U.S, but to acknowledge the changing times and mores in which we recognize and respect that diversity. “With this decision, our currency will now tell more of our story and reflect the contributions of women as well as men to our great democracy,” Lewis said in a letter to the American people, quoted in an NPR article dated April 20, 2016.

In 2019, the project was shelved by then-President Donald J. Trump, blaming a mere attempt at political correctness for the project's existence. Of course, Trump was (and probably still is) quite the admirer of Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, which more or less ended the War of 1812. He also served in both houses of Congress and as two-term president from 1829 to 1837.

But Jackson may be most remembered as a wealthy, slave-owning planter who was a proponent of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which forced thousands of Cherokee from their homelands in the Southeastern U.S. to what was then the Oklahoma Territory. Forced into what became known as the Trail of Tears, the cruel conditions during their round-up resulted in most of the Cherokee being ill-prepared, without proper clothing or supplies, to withstand the harsh 1838-1839 winter. Thousands died before they reached Oklahoma.

A prototype Harriet Tubman bill. Public domain photo.
    In contrast, whereas Jackson was a powerful, much-lauded white male, Harriet Tubman was an enslaved African American woman on a plantation in Maryland. In 1849, she escaped the plantation where she lived and worked and made her way to Pennsylvania. But later on, she risked her life to make more than a dozen trips back to Maryland to assist family members and other slaves to freedom. As the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she was responsible for bringing hundreds of slaves to freedom in the North. Tubman went on to serve in various roles, including as a spy, for the U.S. Army during the Civil War, and later worked for the betterment of impoverished former slaves and became involved in the women's suffrage movement.

Ironically, even the choice of the $20 denomination bill for Tubman's image strikes a historical note. According to NPR in their April 20, 2016 article, a petition from the activist group Women on 20s to President Obama included the following: "We'll note that Tubman's appearance on the $20 bill would have a special historical resonance: That's the same amount she eventually received from the U.S. government as her monthly pension for her service as a nurse, scout, cook and spy during the Civil War, as well as for her status as the widow of a veteran."

You may be asking, “How was Harriet Tubman selected for this honor?” During the Obama administration, the Treasury organized a poll to select an important woman in American history to grace a new version of the $10 bill. Tubman was selected through the poll as most significant, followed by the decision to leave the $10 bill alone, which honors Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury. Lin-Manuel Miranda, of the hit Alexander Hamilton show fame, was decidedly against removing Hamilton from the $10 bill. Treasury Secretary Lewis was also a Hamilton fan. The project moved to the $20 bill, with Tubman up front on the bill, pushing Jackson to the back of the bill.

The final hurdle to getting Tubman onto a newly-designed $20 note will be the completion of a new high-speed printing facility, which the U.S. Treasury needs in order to produce modern currency with robust security measures as part of the design and production. Although the debut of the Tubman note was originally intended to coincide with the centennial in 2020 of the 19th Amendment, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote on the basis of sex, the eventual release of the new bill will be a welcome recognition of Tubman, icon of the Underground Railroad.

For further reading
Andrew Jackson