Last week, Jacob L. Lew, United States Secretary of the Treasury, announced Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, is proposed to be replaced on the face of the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman, former slave, abolitionist and frequent “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.
In a radio interview, business owner Barbara Ortiz Howard, credited as the founder of the movement “Women on 20s,” recalled she was standing in Starbucks, preparing to pay for her order, when the revelation struck her there were no women on U.S. paper currency.
The Susan B. Anthony dollar, minted from 1979 to 1981 and in 1999 and the Sacagawea dollar, minted every year since 2000, might have turned up in your change at some point, although, according to the U.S. Mint website, usmint.gov, there are many coins and medals commemorating women’s history and African-American history, including coins honoring “Lady Bird” Johnson, Bess Truman, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Patricia Nixon, Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and others. And the first quarters, made in 1796, featured the iconic image of “Lady Liberty” on the face and the American eagle on the back.
However, Harriet Tubman on the $20, if finalized, would be the first African American and woman to appear on the front of a mass circulated bill in United States history.
Maybe, in homage to the 1997 song “All About the Benjamins” and the 2002 movie of the same name, it will soon be “all about the Harriets.”
“Who we value in our society, who we kind of elevate to these higher statuses, we put them on the money. And so to put a black woman on the money, a former slave who fought for emancipation and freedom like Harriet Tubman is a very, very powerful thing,” commentator Danielle Belton said.
According to the official website for the U.S. Treasury, “the portraits on our currency notes are of deceased persons whose places in history the American people know well.”
The current design of the $20, with a large portrait of Andrew Jackson, offset, on its face and featuring color-shifting ink, a distinctive watermark and security strips, debuted in 2003 and its redesign was, in part, to discourage counterfeiting, according to the U.S. Currency Education Program. Jackson, if the reported redesign takes place, will appear on the Tubman bill in a smaller portrait on the reverse side along with a rendering of the White House.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Jackson’s home state, is reported by ABC News, to be displeased about the proposed design change. Alexander described Jackson as the first “common man” to be elected president.
“United States history is not Andrew Jackson versus Harriet Tubman. It is Andrew Jackson and Harriet Tubman, both heroes of a nation’s work in progress toward great goals,” Alexander said in a statement April 20.
Alexander may have a point.
However, Harriet Tubman is more of a hero for me. And, if I may speak for someone I recently saw in a photograph, for George Reed.
The Allentown Art Museum’s current exhibition “This Light of Ours: Activists Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” is a collection of powerful images, some famous, some obscure, many surprising, many poignant, many touching, many hard to witness. There are the expected, if not anticipated, images of Martin Luther King Jr. along with those of Civil Rights era luminaries John Lewis, Ralph Bunche, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hershel, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young near a photograph of King walking with two unnamed schoolgirls dressed in kilts, carefully pressed shirts and their best shoes, carrying their books, as King escorts them to class in segregated Mississippi. There are images of college students helping register voters and of protesters holding hands while facing down blasts from water cannon. There is a photograph of Jim Leatherer a man who, on one leg and supported by crutches, marched 50 miles to Selma, his face locked in grim determination, displayed not far from a photograph of Doris Wilson, of Selma, her bangs in curlers, walking in the rain, her hand raised in a wave as she smiles. A card posted beside Wilson’s picture sets the scene. Wilson, then 20, had lost her job for taking park in voter registration.
But it is Reed who most might view Harriet Tubman a hero.
Reed, who may be about nine or 10 years old in the photograph, is standing in front of St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in Valley View, Miss. in 1964, according to the information card on the wall next to his image. His piercing eyes stare at the camera, the photographer and the viewer. His jaw set, his lips tightly pressed together, he looks like a person who knows Harriet Tubman’s place in history and for whom Harriet Tubman has value.
Many challenging aspects remain about the possibility of a Tubman $20 bill and discussion will, no doubt, continue until the 2020 unveiling should there be one, and likely, beyond. However, I believe the fact of the discussion is worth noting. Perhaps you do, too.
East Penn Press