Tubman’s inclusion on the $20 bill reconsidered


The $20 bill currently features former President Andrew Jackson, but a bipartisan bill seeks to replace him with an image of Harriet Tubman.

In late August, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Treasury Department may scrap plans to replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, a plan finalized under former President Barack Hussein Obama in 2016. Now, Mnuchin says his department is reconsidering the change.

On Friday, Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) introduced a bill that would force the Treasury Department to make the change. The bill would require the Treasury to update the $20 bill with a portrait of Tubman, the abolitionist icon who helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom, by 2020.

If the change is made, Tubman would be the only woman to appear on the front of a United States paper note.

“Harriet Tubman is a hero who bravely led countless Americans to freedom and opportunity, courageously fought for her country, and was an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage,” said Katko.

“Too often, our nation does not do enough to honor the contributions of women in American history, especially women of color,” said Cummings. “I am proud to introduce this bill with Rep. Katko to honor Harriet Tubman’s role in making America a more free and more equal society.”

When the Treasury Department announced changes last year, they were set to redesign the $20, $10 and $5 bills. According to Mnuchin, his predecessor, Jack Lew, wanted the changes primarily to prevent counterfeiting, something Obama administration officials emphasized when announcing the changes in April 2016.

The Treasury Department initially planned to replace Jackson’s image with one of the White House, while new designs for the back of the $10 bill featured leaders of the suffrage movement, and the back of the $5 bill featured depictions of historic civil rights events at the Lincoln Memorial.

While Lew said the Treasury’s first priority was making the bills harder to counterfeit, he further clarified that he wanted to use the opportunity to recognize American heroes.

When Mnuchin put the change on hold, he said, “It’s not something that I’m focused on at the moment. The issues of why we change it will be primarily related to what we need to do for security purposes.”

With the change now being considered again, and the new bipartisan House bill in the wings, Americans may see the redesign of the $20, $10 and $5 bills in the coming years.

The controversy surrounding President Jackson’s continued inclusion stems, in part, from his fierce nationalism and his record as a slave-owner. Another unforgiving act was the brutal relocation of Native American tribes under his watch.

Jackson took no action after Georgia claimed millions of acres of land, previously guaranteed to the Cherokee Indians under federal law, declining to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the state had no authority over Native American tribal lands.

In 1835, the Cherokees signed a treaty, giving up their land in exchange for territory west of Arkansas. In 1838, some 15,000 Cherokees started off on an ill-fated trip by foot along the Trail of Tears, so-called because the journey resulted in thousands of deaths.

On the other hand, Tubman is a less controversial figure.

About Harriet Tubman (source: Biography.com):

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the route of the Underground Railroad.

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
—Harriet Tubman

Who Was Harriet Tubman?

Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (c. 1820 to March 10, 1913) escaped to freedom in the North in 1849 to become the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Tubman risked her life to lead hundreds of family members and other slaves from the plantation system to freedom on this elaborate secret network of safe houses. A leading abolitionist before the American Civil War, Tubman also helped the Union Army during the war, working as a spy among other roles.

After the Civil War ended, Tubman dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. In honor of her life and by popular demand, in 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the center of a new $20 bill.

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

In 1849, following a bout of illness and the death of her owner, Harriet Tubman decided to escape slavery in Maryland for Philadelphia. She feared that her family would be further severed and was concerned for her own fate as a sickly slave of low economic value. Two of her brothers, Ben and Harry, accompanied her on September 17, 1849. However after a notice was published in the Cambridge Democrat offering a $300 reward for the return of Araminta, Harry and Ben, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts and returned to the plantation. Harriet had no plans to remain in bondage. Seeing her brothers safely home, she soon set off alone for Pennsylvania.

Making use of the network known as the Underground Railroad, Tubman traveled nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia. She crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled later: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Rather than remaining in the safety of the North, Tubman made it her mission to rescue her family and others living in slavery via the Underground Railroad. In December 1850, Tubman received a warning that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold, along with her two young children. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife at an auction in Baltimore. Harriet then helped the entire family make the journey to Philadelphia. This was the first of many trips by Tubman, who earned the nickname “Moses” for her leadership. Over time, she was able to guide her parents, several siblings and about 60 others to freedom.

The dynamics of escaping slavery changed in 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. This law stated that escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to slavery, leading to the abduction of former slaves and free blacks living in Free States. Law enforcement officials in the North were compelled to aid in the capture of slaves, regardless of their personal principles. In response to the law, Tubman re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, which prohibited slavery categorically.

In December 1851, Tubman guided a group of 11 fugitives northward. There is evidence to suggest that the party stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

In April 1858, Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown, who advocated the use of violence to disrupt and destroy the institution of slavery. Tubman shared Brown’s goals and at least tolerated his methods. Tubman claimed to have had a prophetic vision of Brown before they met. When Brown began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry, he turned to “General Tubman” for help. After Brown’s subsequent execution, Tubman praised him as a martyr.

Harriet Tubman remained active during the Civil War. Working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse, Tubman quickly became an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.

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