The US will for the first time have an African-American as the star of one of its highest-circulation bank notes after the Treasury announced that Civil War-era abolitionist Harriet Tubman would be featured on a new $20 bill.
Tubman will also be the first woman to grace a US paper currency in more than a century thanks to the biggest shake-up of historical characters featured since 1928.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last year launched a public consultation to secure nominations for a famous woman to replace Alexander Hamilton, the first US Treasury secretary and arguably the father of the modern American financial system, on the $10 bill.
But after a Broadway-fuelled backlash and what he described as a “long and difficult” process, Mr Lew on Wednesday said he had decided to push through a broader shake-up of US bank notes and ordered new designs for the $5, $10 and $20 bills.
The subject of Hamilton, a hip-hop Broadway musical that this week won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, would remain on the front of a redesigned $10 bill, he said. The back would feature an image of a 1913 march for suffrage that ended on the steps of the US Treasury and honour prominent suffragettes such as Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony.
Tubman will replace former president Andrew Jackson on the new $20 bill while Jackson will be on the reverse alongside an image of the White House. The new $5 bill will continue to feature Abraham Lincoln on the front but will on the back celebrate historic events at his memorial in Washington, including Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech.
Mr Lew said he had ordered that the process of developing the new $20 and $5 notes be accelerated and wanted all three new designs to be presented together in 2020. “Our goal is to have all three new notes go into circulation as quickly as possible,” he told reporters.
“With this decision our currency will now tell more of our story and reflect the contributions of women as well as men to our country’s democracy.”
Tubman, a former slave who was born in Maryland in 1820, not only escaped slavery but led hundreds of others to freedom as the most famous “conductor” along the Civil War-era escape network known as the Underground Railroad. She died in 1913.
The current line-up of paper currency portraits was last changed between 1914 and 1928 when Hamilton took his place on the $10 bill, Jackson was moved to the $20 bill and former presidents William McKinley and Grover Cleveland took pride of place on the $500 and $1,000 bills, respectively. George Washington, the nation’s first president, has been a feature on various editions of the $1 bill since the 19th century.
The possibility of losing Hamilton on the $10 bill had incensed a range of people from economists to fans of the new musical and its writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. But, likewise, the lack of diversity on the US paper currency had also driven another strain of criticism. Ben Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chair, suggested in a blog post on Wednesday that the controversy meant it was time for the Treasury to behave more like the Postal Service and update bills more often.
“Occasional changes to bill design would give us more space and flexibility to honour the past; and, if done at reasonable intervals, could coincide with necessary security improvements as well,” he said.
But the decision has incensed some feminist critics. Writing in the New York Times, political commentator Cokie Roberts called the decision to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill “yet another ‘wait your turn’ moment for American women”.
“The updated $10 bill, scheduled to enter circulation in 2020, was supposed to celebrate the centennial of [women gaining the right to vote in the US]. Now it will be more like a footnote.”
Hamilton, who had a history of adultery and left his wife and children in penury after dying in a duel, remained a poor role model, Ms Roberts said.
Women on 20s, a campaign group that had led the fight to have a female hero featured on US bank notes, celebrated the Treasury decision about Tubman.
“We are delighted that the parties involved in the decision are united in their commitment to the goal of honouring women in this most visible fashion,” said Women On 20s founder Barbara Ortiz Howard. “It’s high time to get the party started.”
Harriet Tubman was born as a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, both Ashanti African slaves. The exact date of her birth is unknown, but it is thought to have been in 1820 on the plantation of Edward Brodess. She was one of eleven children, but her older siblings were sold to other owners down further south. Called Araminta at birth, Harriet took the name of her mother sometime in her teens. She started out as a household worker, but was soon transferred to the fields, work which she preferred more. She did not learn to read and write as a child, and was often rented out by her owner to work for others. By this was she was given the opportunity to earn some money, albeit little, for herself.
In 1844, Harriet married John Tubman, a free African American man. However, it did not seem to be a successful union, as John later remarried. In 1849, Harriet successfully planned her escape to freedom in the North. She used the Underground Railroad, a network of safe-houses. It was operated mostly by abolitionist Quakers, and open to runaway slaves in an attempt to help them reach their freedom. However, after arriving in Pennsylvania, Harriet decided to return to Maryland to bring her family up north with her as well. Harriet made numerous such trips over the next twelve years, bringing seventy people out of slavery. Some sources even say her efforts helped around 300 people escape slavery.
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison bestowed upon Harriet Tubman the name of “Moses”. Indeed, just like the ancient Jewish prophet did so long before her, Harriet led many of her people out of bondage. Her use of African-American spirituals to pass crucial escape information to slaves became a crucial resource, and the songs took on new meanings. She saved the lives of many people, avoiding capture both of herself and of many of those she was guiding. On her work as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, Harriet said, “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” Harriet was also a Union spy during the American Civil of from 1861 to 1864, and was said to have previously helped abolitionist John Brown with his plans to attack Harper’s Ferry.
As a child, Harriet received a head injury which left her with epileptic fits. These seizures made it difficult for her to do her work in the fields, and resulted in beatings and other mistreatment. The effects of the injury remained with her throughout the remainder of her life. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, passed just as Harriet began making her trips with the Underground Railroad, made it even more dangerous for escaped slaves in the North as it increased provisions for returning slaves caught in another state to be returned to their owners. However, Harriet worked with others to settle those in most in danger in beyond the nations borders in Canada, from where they wouldn’t be returned to their “masters”.
Death and Legacy
At the 1896 inaugural meeting of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, Harriet was the key speaker. The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged was opened in New York in 1908, named in her honor. As a woman and a former slave, Harriet Tubman became an icon for those seeking justice, and her spirituals were sung in the marches of the Civil Rights movement half a century after her death. Everything from stamps to U.S. Naval ships to asteroids have borne her name. She died in 1913, and her parting words were those of Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Her courageous accomplishments freeing slaves, fighting in the Civil War, and speaking on behalf of women’s rights have inspired women and men to continue the fight for justice and freedom for all.
Source: FT /OTCEER