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Critics say plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is an insult to her legacy

·National Reporter & Producer
·8 min read
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This week, the Biden administration announced that it would resume efforts to put the image of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, a move first championed by the Obama administration in 2016. Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the Treasury Department is “exploring ways to speed up” the process to ensure the 19th century freedom fighter is recognized.

“It’s important that our notes, our money — if people don’t know what a note is — reflect the history and diversity of our country,” Psaki said during a White House press briefing. “Harriet Tubman’s image gracing the new $20 note would certainly reflect that.”

Many initially praised the move put forth by Obama-era Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to highlight the American abolitionist. To supporters, the idea of having Tubman, herself an ex-slave, replace former President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, is a bold rebuke to an ugly era in American history.

Harriet Tubman, far left
Abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman, far left, circa 1900. (MPI/Getty Images)

But some Black activists say putting Tubman on the $20 bill is an uneasy fit with her legacy.

“Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade or competitive markets,” Feminista Jones, an activist, author and advocate, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post in 2015.

“She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves,” Jones added. “She risked her life to ensure that enslaved Black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them. I do not believe Tubman, who died impoverished in 1913, would accept the ‘honor.’”

Tubman, born into slavery around 1822, was the fourth of nine children, and grew up working in cotton fields in Dorchester County, Md. In 1849, Tubman escaped her plantation under the cover of darkness, following the North Star to Philadelphia, and at 27 years old began working as a maid. After saving enough money the following year, she returned to the South to liberate her sister’s family. Over the next 10 years, Tubman helped more than 700 slaves escape to freedom, becoming the most well known of the Underground Railroad’s “conductors.”

Later, Tubman was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and subsequently became the first woman in the country’s history to lead a military expedition; she was also known to be a prominent supporter of the women's suffrage movement. She died in 1913 at the age of 91.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Jones, in an interview with Yahoo News this week, questioned why putting Tubman on a bill would honor her legacy.

“Why would we want to put somebody who fought for freedom from this kind of capitalist oppression?” Jones asked. “Why would we want to take her image and then make her the face of this thing that so many people lack access to?”

“I’ve studied Harriet Tubman extensively,” she added. “If there’s one thing that I understand, is that she did not get recognized for all of the amazing things that she did. She died a pauper, and she was a U.S. veteran. The [country] should have honored her as a veteran. She was the only woman to lead a raid for the Union Army. That in itself is just an amazing accomplishment for the all-women crowd. So why not acknowledge that?”

Instead of putting a Black woman, or any woman of color, on a note, Jones says Black women merely want to be valued equitably in society.

“When it comes to representation, I’ll be quite honest, I don’t care much about it,” Jones said. “Representation without action, without policy change, without improvement of daily life means nothing to me.”

“I don’t need to look in magazines and see people that look like me if I’m still struggling every single day,” she added. “That’s not what's important to me. … So when people ask, ‘What is it that Black women want?’ We want our humanity to be acknowledged. We want to have dignity. We want people to see us as human beings, not as laborers, not as mules, not as servants to other people.”

A display with iconic Black figures
A display with iconic Black figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., center, and Harriet Tubman, right. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Historically, Black women have made a fraction of what white men and women make, despite being the most educated population in the country. For every dollar a white man earns for work in the United States, a white woman earns 79 cents and a Black woman earns just 62 cents, according to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

The median net worth of Black women in America paints an even grimmer picture. Single Black women ages 20 to 39 with children but without a bachelor’s degree have a median net worth of $0, according to a 2017 report from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity. Single Black women ages 20 to 39 with a bachelor’s degree fare even worse, having a median net worth range of -$11,000 to $0. White women, on the other hand, fare considerably better. Single white women ages 20 to 39 with a bachelor’s degree have a median net worth range of $3,400 to $7,500.

The push to have Tubman on the $20 bill was initially set to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in 2020. But the year came and went without any revision to the $20 bill.

The plan to put Tubman on the $20 bill stalled under the Trump administration. Donald Trump, while still a candidate in 2016, called the push to replace Jackson with Tubman “pure political correctness.” He hailed Jackson as his political hero and installed a portrait of the former president in the Oval Office amid criticism from some historians and activists who noted that Jackson, in addition to being a slave owner, committed genocide against Native Americans.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump with a portrait of President Andrew Jackson. (Michael Reynolds/Pool/Getty Images)

Now, years after the plan to put Tubman on the $20 bill was first introduced, the move is being met with both praise and opposition.

Akinyele Umoja, an African American studies professor at Georgia State University, said he sees “both sides” of the debate, but he ultimately thinks the move honors Tubman in an appropriate way.

“I was glad, particularly after the delay, that there was some movement on that front to have Harriet Tubman represented,” Umoja, author of “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,” told Yahoo News. “The critics are waging questions of it just being symbolism and argue there's racial capitalism going on and Black people are being affected. And so people want to see something more substantive than just symbolism. I do too.”

But he adds, “It was Trump who held it up. So I definitely don’t want to be on the same side with him and the white supremacists.”

However, not everyone is so supportive of the move. Ashley Stevens, a Black Twitter user with a substantial following, said she thinks “there’s some sort of perversion” in putting Tubman on the bill.

“A woman who was traded as capital becoming the face of capital doesn’t sit right with my spirit,” Stevens said Monday in a tweet that went viral. “If you wanna honor Tubman there are much better ways to do so that would change the material benefits of people’s lives. Build schools, parks, a historical center, etc in her name. Putting her face on the 20 dollar bill isn’t even a feel good. It’s giving me the yucks.”

The image of former first lady Martha Washington on the $1 silver certificate
The image of former first lady Martha Washington on the $1 silver certificate. (Getty Images)

The last time a woman appeared on an American paper bill was over a century ago, when former first lady Martha Washington graced the $1 silver certificate from 1891 to 1896. Before this, the only other woman to appear on a bill was Pocahontas, pictured in a group image on the $20 bill, from 1865 to 1869.

Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, said the specifics on the redesigned $20 bill would be finalized by the Treasury Department. Coincidentally, Biden has selected Janet Yellen to lead this department, making her the first woman to be the treasury secretary in the department’s 232-year history.

Jones argues that the Tubman debate underscores the country’s unhealthy obsession with money.

“I completely understand why people are pushing for this type of representation, because cash is king, right?” she said. “But also understand the harm that it can cause. ... I think we need to really think long and hard about our connection to each other and how we function within this capitalist system.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Universal History Archive/Getty Images, Getty Images


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