The Breathtaking Courage of Harriet Tubman: An Animated History Lesson Speaks to Her Place on the $20 Bill

I was a con­duc­tor on the Under­ground Rail­road, and I can say what many oth­ers can­not. I nev­er ran my train off the track, and I nev­er lost a pas­sen­ger.  —Har­ri­et Tub­man

Remem­ber how one of the Oba­ma administration’s final ini­tia­tives was to redesign the $20 bill, ban­ish­ing Andrew Jack­son, a slave­hold­er, to a minor role on the back of the bill, in favor of abo­li­tion­ist Har­ri­et Tub­man, who was born into slav­ery?

The announce­ment arrived on the heels of a con­tro­ver­sy, after then-Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Jacob J. Lew enraged Amer­i­can women by going back on a promise to install a woman on the face of a new­ly designed $10 bill.

The deci­sion to keep Alexan­der Hamil­ton, archi­tect of our finan­cial sys­tem and the country’s first Trea­sury Sec­re­tary, in place is rumored to owe rather a lot to his sta­tus as the sub­ject of a cer­tain hit musi­cal that had opened ear­li­er in the year.

The offi­cial design of the Tub­man bill was to have been unveiled in 2020, to coin­cide with the hun­dredth anniver­sary of the 19th Amend­ment, which guar­an­teed a wom­an’s right to vote. Had all gone accord­ing to plan, it would have been in wide cir­cu­la­tion lat­er this decade.

At the time Lew was untrou­bled by the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the incom­ing admin­is­tra­tion might kill off the pro­posed makeover:

I don’t think somebody’s going to prob­a­bly want to do that — to take the image of Har­ri­et Tub­man off of our mon­ey? To take the image of the suf­frag­ists off?

It seems, how­ev­er, that some­one did want to do that.

In 2016, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump told NBC that replac­ing Jack­son with Tub­man was “pure polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” sug­gest­ing instead that a place might be found for Tub­man on the $2 bill… which is no longer print­ed.

He also report­ed­ly remarked to for­mer White House advis­er Omarosa Mani­gault New­man, “You want me to put that face on the twen­ty-dol­lar bill?”

The Trea­sury Depart­ment website’s revi­sion in the wake of the 2016 elec­tion scrubbed all ref­er­ences to planned changes to the cur­ren­cy.

Lew’s replace­ment, Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin, final­ly announced that the new $20 bill wouldn’t be ready until 2028, and that the fin­ished design might not include Tub­man at all. He attrib­uted this to tech­ni­cal rea­sons relat­ing to secu­ri­ty fea­tures, though a Trea­sury Depart­ment employ­ee told The New York Times that the engrav­ing plate for it was com­plet­ed “as recent­ly as May 2018” and that the design “appeared to be far along in the process.”

Cer­tain­ly, there were big­ger sto­ries in 2020 than the absence of the promised Har­ri­et Tub­man $20 bill, but the obfus­ca­tion and delay were mad­den­ing giv­en every­thing Tub­man, a woman of action, was able to accom­plish well over a hun­dred years ago.

Most of us are famil­iar with her promi­nence on the Under­ground Rail­road, which led to the sobri­quet “Moses of her peo­ple,” but there are sev­er­al things in the above ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son by Janell Hob­son, Depart­ment Chair of Wom­en’s, Gen­der and Sex­u­al­i­ty Stud­ies at SUNY Albany, that may come as news to you.

Of par­tic­u­lar note, Tub­man was the first woman in US his­to­ry to plan and lead a mil­i­tary raid, result­ing in the lib­er­a­tion of near­ly 700 enslaved per­sons in South Car­oli­na.

Her sec­ond hus­band, Nel­son Davis, also born into slav­ery, had been a Union sol­dier, which enti­tled her to a pen­sion of $8 as a mil­i­tary wid­ow.

She fought hard for an increase on the basis of her own ser­vice to the Union Army, enlist­ing var­i­ous friends and sup­port­ers to lob­by on her behalf, includ­ing Lincoln’s Sec­re­tary of State, William Seward, who said, “I have known her long as a noble high spir­it, as true as sel­dom dwells in the human form.”

Final­ly, in 1899, her pen­sion was increased to $20 a month.

Pro­fes­sor Hob­son, whose les­son pre­dates Mnuchin’s announce­ment of the stall, called the denom­i­na­tion “a fit­ting twist of fate.”

As is the rub­ber stamp that artist Dano Wal cre­at­ed to help dis­gust­ed Amer­i­cans con­vert Jack­sons into Tub­mans with­out the help of the Trea­sury Depart­ment:

Who we choose to hon­or as a soci­ety affects the moral atti­tudes that are baked into us as we grow up. The impact that see­ing the face of Har­ri­et Tub­man star­ing back at you from a $20 bill should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed. This sort of rep­re­sen­ta­tion can sub­tly but deeply affect some­one’s con­cep­tion of them­selves and their place in soci­ety. The slight­ly sub­ver­sive nature of it being cur­ren­cy that’s been hand-stamped by anoth­er human makes a dis­cov­ery of one of these bills all the more joy­ous.

Good news looms on the hori­zon. Less than a week into the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, the Trea­sury Depart­ment con­firmed that the agency is “explor­ing ways to resume” putting Har­ri­et Tub­man on the bill, as well as ways to has­ten their release. She will be the first female and first Black Amer­i­can to be fea­tured on our fold­ing mon­ey.

TED-Ed has a list of addi­tion­al resources for those who’d like to delve deep­er into Tubman’s life and lega­cy, as well as a dis­cus­sion as to whether putting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill is a fit­ting hon­or.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Design­er Cre­ates a 3D-Print­ed Stamp That Replaces Andrew Jack­son with Har­ri­et Tub­man on the $20 Bill

What the Text­books Don’t Tell Us About The Atlantic Slave Trade: An Ani­mat­ed Video Fills In His­tor­i­cal Gaps

The Names of 1.8 Mil­lion Eman­ci­pat­ed Slaves Are Now Search­able in the World’s Largest Genealog­i­cal Data­base, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans Find Lost Ances­tors

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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