Harriet Tubman and the 20-Dollar Bill Controversy

By Sabrina Völz

Pub­lic Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61139114

Mere days after Joe Biden was sworn in as Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, the new admin­is­tra­tion announced its inten­tion to put Har­ri­et Tub­man – known as Moses – on the twen­ty-dol­lar bill. The cur­ren­cy redesign – a rel­a­tive­ly com­mon occur­rence in the 19th cen­tu­ry – was orig­i­nal­ly set for release in 2020 to mark the cen­ten­ni­al of the 19th Amend­ment that grant­ed women the right to vote. The major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans sup­port­ed the redesign in 2016 when the last poll on the issue was tak­en. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump put the project on hold, cit­ing secu­ri­ty issues and attribut­ing the Oba­ma ini­tia­tive to sheer polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. While Trump may still view Andrew Jack­son as an Amer­i­can hero, his­to­ri­ans are quick to point out the com­plex­i­ties of the for­mer U.S. president’s biog­ra­phy. Jack­son owned hun­dreds of slaves and was respon­si­ble for the Indi­an Removal Act that led to the death of about 4,000 Chero­kees, forced to walk from the South­ern states to mod­ern-day Okla­homa on what is now referred to as the Trail of Tears. Even though he prob­a­bly should be, Jack­son will not be com­plete­ly removed from the twen­ty-dol­lar bill – he’ll just be demot­ed to the back. The irony of plac­ing Tub­man on one side and Jack­son on the oth­er on a sym­bol of nation­al iden­ti­ty has not gone unno­ticed and cer­tain­ly speaks to the divi­sion in Amer­i­can soci­ety today.

“Putting Tub­man on legal ten­der, when slaves in the U.S. were treat­ed as fun­gi­ble com­modi­ties is a supreme form of dis­re­spect. The imagery of her face chang­ing hands as peo­ple exchange cash for goods and ser­vices evokes for me dis­com­fit­ing scenes of enslaved per­sons being hand­ed over as pay­ment for white debt or for any­thing white slave­hold­ers want­ed,” says Brit­tany Coop­er, pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, in her Time Mag­a­zine’s rebuke. She addi­tion­al­ly ques­tions whether Tub­man, who ded­i­cat­ed her life to eman­ci­pa­tion and equal rights for African Amer­i­cans, would have actu­al­ly viewed the ges­ture as an hon­or giv­en the eco­nom­ic, health, and hous­ing dis­par­i­ties for Black peo­ple in the U.S. today. Coop­er con­tin­ues: “Too often Amer­i­ca attempts to atone for racism through style and sym­bol rather than sub­stance. We don’t need Amer­i­ca to put Black women on its mon­ey. We need Amer­i­ca to put its mon­ey on Black women.” All points well taken.

After read­ing Cooper’s arti­cle and a few oth­er crit­i­cisms, I decid­ed to final­ly pick up the 2020 biog­ra­phy writ­ten by Ker­ry Wal­ters on Har­ri­et Tub­man (ABC-CILO Press), a book I had want­ed to read since watch­ing the biopic Har­ri­et direct­ed by Kasi Lem­mons. I didn’t real­ize the extent to which the for­mer slave and illit­er­ate con­duc­tor for the Under­ground Rail­road, Civ­il War cook, nurse, scout, spy as well as out­spo­ken sup­port­er of women’s rights endured hard­ship. Her child­hood was over at the age of 6 or 7, then her bru­tal life as a slave began, whip­pings and all. After hear­ing about her immi­nent sale in 1849, Har­ri­et – now in her ear­ly 20s – left her hus­band behind, a free Black man who didn’t want to leave. Wal­ters esti­mates that Tub­man con­duct­ed no few­er than 13 trips back to the East­ern Shore and freed about 70 fam­i­ly mem­bers and oth­er slaves. Tub­man is also cred­it­ed with lead­ing 150 black Union sol­diers and free­ing over 700 slaves in the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Raid on June 1, 1863. She was the only woman dur­ing the Civ­il War to lead a mil­i­tary operation.

Fol­low­ing the Civ­il War, on her train ride home in Oct. 1865, she was ‘repaid’ for her ser­vice to the nation by being bru­tal­ly assault­ed by a bunch of thugs who didn’t want ‘one of her kind’ on their train. Fight­ing back, she suf­fered a bro­ken arm and some ribs which made her ill fit to work for months. She was, after all, the main bread­win­ner and matri­arch for rel­a­tives and friends alike. Year after year, food was a scarci­ty. When forced to, she begged to feed her­self as well as her charges and often sought the char­i­ty of devot­ed admir­ers and patrons. Des­ti­tute, she nev­er­the­less sup­port­ed for­mer slaves and the impov­er­ished. Accord­ing to Wal­ters, she and her church reg­u­lar­ly spon­sored bazars to feed the for­got­ten. Tub­man was final­ly able to eke out a liv­ing when Sarah Brad­ford wrote the hero’s biog­ra­phy and declined roy­al­ties from the pub­lished books that fol­lowed. Yet it wasn’t until 1899, 35 years after the end of her mil­i­tary ser­vice, that Tub­man was final­ly grant­ed a pen­sion of $20 dol­lars a month – again the irony of that sum has not gone unnoticed.

So yes, it is some­what unfit­ting to put her like­ness on a ban­knote, the very thing that she did not have much of. And yes, she had to repeat­ed­ly peti­tion the U.S. gov­ern­ment to rec­og­nize her mil­i­tary pen­sion. And yes, the redesign will not make up for decades or even cen­turies of dis­re­gard, injus­tice, and mis­ery. How­ev­er, at the same time, I still feel that if her pic­ture on a 20-dol­lar bill caus­es oth­ers like me to study the rest of her sto­ry – the good, the bad, and the ugly – then that, at least, is worth some­thing. Tub­man was and is an Amer­i­can hero. Instead of just rel­e­gat­ing her to the world of children’s books, on our cur­ren­cy, she will become part of our world each and every day. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is a sub­ject not to be tak­en light­ly. Amer­i­cans of all creeds and cul­tures need to see Black faces in the White House, in the cin­e­ma, and even on our banknotes.

As to the dis­par­i­ties men­tioned above, there is still a lot of work to be done. Instead of wait­ing around for the gov­ern­ment to do some­thing, let’s ask our­selves what we can do to stand for and stand with mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple – as Tub­man did – each and every day.

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