The only remarkable thing about the decision announced Wednesday to put Harriet Tubman’s image on the $20 bill is that it took so long. Tubman will be one of the few women ever depicted on the front of U.S. currency and the first African-American.
Few people have led such a remarkable life and contributed so profoundly to the cause of freedom in this country.
Tubman, born a slave, was illiterate, female and black. She suffered a concussion in her early teens that left her with headaches, narcolepsy and dizziness for the rest of her life.
She was also fearless, smart, tough, articulate and a born leader.
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Tubman is best known for her work conducting slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad and that is what has driven the entirely appropriate, if overdue, decision to put her image on the $20 bill.
Her story doesn’t end with abolition, though. During the Civil War she recruited slaves to the Union Army, organized a spy network and is credited with leading a charge that disrupted Southern supply lines. Throughout her life after slavery she worked to provide employment, housing and education to former slaves. She also campaigned for women’s suffrage and advocated particularly for the rights of women of color.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist ally of Tubman’s, wrote that, “in point of courage, shrewdness, and disinterested exertions to rescue her fellow-man, she was without equal."
No surprise that when the U.S. Treasury Department, which is responsible for currency, asked for input on women to include, Tubman received thousands of votes. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, in announcing the changes, that he was, “particularly struck,” by the many children, “for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.”
The currency redesign will include other women, as well. Founding Father and first secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton will keep his place on the front of the $10 bill but the back will be redesigned to feature five leaders of the suffrage movement. Abraham Lincoln will remain on the front of the $5 bill but the back will highlight historic events at the Lincoln Memorial and will include images of Martin Luther King, Jr., Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Welcome, all, to our currency. It’s been a long time coming.