“With a change of administrations, it looks like Harriet Tubman is once again headed to the front of the $20 bill,” The Associated Press reported Jan. 25. Jen Psaki, the press secretary for President Joe Biden, said the Treasury Department is resuming efforts to put Tubman’s image on the U.S. currency. Those efforts had begun under the Obama administration, with then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew selecting Tubman to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20. But those efforts were essentially stalled during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
First, a reminder of what an amazing woman Harriet Tubman was, for those who might not be familiar with her life story.
She was born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland. (That year is the best estimate by historians. The genealogical records of most enslaved people in the United States are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.)
She escaped from slavery in 1849 and — not content to save just herself — became best known as the courageous “Moses” who repeatedly put her own life in jeopardy to help bring enslaved people from the South to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad.
But that was hardly all. As we noted in an editorial last year, “Tubman was also a military scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and a champion of women’s suffrage.” She didn’t waste any of her nine decades.
Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass directed this tremendous praise at Tubman in 1868: “The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”
Lovely words, and absolutely correct. Tubman was a hero.
That’s absolutely why she fits the bill for America’s $20 note.
It’s appropriate, too, to get this bit of news as we head into Black History Month.
It’s a shame, though, that the Tubman bill had a four-year detour. In April 2016, Lew explained that the initial plan had been for the Treasury to redesign the $10 note to feature a woman and “encourage a national conversation about women in our democracy.”
To that end, hundreds of women had been nominated for the honor of being on the redesigned $10 bill. But a surprise was unfolding in American popular culture at that time: a renaissance for Alexander Hamilton, the man on the $10 bill, thanks to the Broadway sensation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Suddenly there was resistance to giving Hamilton the boot.
So Lew switched gears and announced that the $20 would be redesigned instead, replacing seventh president Jackson with Tubman.
“I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy,” Lew wrote for the 2016 announcement.
But following that year’s presidential election, “Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not move forward with the decision by the Obama administration,” the AP explained. “Instead, Mnuchin in 2019 announced a delay in redesigning the $20 bill in order to redesign the $10 and $50 bills first to improve security features to thwart counterfeiters.”
Mnuchin’s plan would have delayed the Tubman $20 until 2028.
The Biden administration is accelerating that process.
“It is important that our .... money reflect the history and diversity of our country and Harriet Tubman’s image gracing the new $20 note would certainly reflect that,” press secretary Psaki said. “We are exploring ways to speed up that effort.”
Fittingly, the head of the Treasury is now Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold that position in the department’s 232 years.
Also fittingly, this new push is happening under Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman to be vice president, the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency.
Ceilings are shattering.
When the Tubman news was first revealed by the Treasury in 2016, we wrote: “Finally, a woman — and indeed, a woman of color — will be honored on the front of American paper currency, and only 240 years after our nation’s founding! Well, 240-plus however many years it takes for the new $20 bill to be created and put into circulation.”
As it turns out, “however many years” has been a bit longer than expected.
Tubman likely wouldn’t have been dissuaded by such obstacles.
“I would fight for liberty so long as my strength lasted,” she once said.
She was an inspiration in so many ways, and we’re elated to see that the move to honor her on the $20 bill is rightfully back on track.