The politics behind the delay in the Harriet Tubman $20 bill
General Harriet Tubman was one of the greatest abolitionists of the 19th century. Born into U.S. slavery, once she escaped from a Maryland plantation, Tubman joined the Underground Railroad and helped to free hundreds of enslaved Black people in the South from bondage. She even became a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War to help bring about the military defeat of the Confederate Army.
Compare the inspiring legacy of this heroic Black woman with that of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president. Before Jackson was elected president, he owned less than 10 enslaved people on his Heritage cotton plantation in Tennessee. When he died in 1845, that number had grown to at least 150.
Jackson was not only a slave owner, but also a butcher of Indigenous peoples. He led his troops in a bloody massacre of hundreds of Muscogee (aka Creek) Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama in 1814. Along with untold numbers of other atrocities, that battle contributed to the illegal theft of approximately 20 million acres of Indigenous lands as part of capitalist expansion into the West. For this “major victory,” Jackson was appointed major general. He also led assaults on the Seminole Nation in Florida.
As president, Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress in 1830, which forced military removal of Native Nations east of the Mississippi River — Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw and later the Shawnee, Sauk and Fox, Potawatomie, Ottawa, Omaha, Miami and other Indigenous nations — west to Indian Territory (which later became the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Nebraska). Thousands of Native people died along the Trail of Tears.
Why bring up the totally divergent lives of Tubman and Jackson? The image of Harriet Tubman was scheduled to replace Jackson’s on the most popular U.S. money denomination, the $20 bill, in 2020 to mark the centennial of women legally gaining the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
For the record, this right was mainly relegated to white women, not Black women living in the Jim Crow South or other women of color. It would take another 45 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be passed for women of color everywhere to win this basic democratic right, which is still under attack from the neo-fascist right wing.
Before he left office, President Barack Obama had slated the image change from Jackson to Tubman for 2020. However, at a congressional hearing this May 22, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reversed this directive, stating that the image of Jackson will remain on the bill until after the current president, a white supremacist and misogynist, leaves office. It could take upwards of nine more years before this change officially takes place, due to White House opposition for which there was no coherent explanation.
Mnuchin claimed: “It is my responsibility now to focus on what is the issue of counterfeiting and the security features.” He said he would not reintroduce the Tubman proposal again, even if he agrees to a second term.
Trump degrades Tubman’s legacy
It is no secret that Trump, a great admirer of Jackson, has opposed this change in the $20 bill since before he took office, calling it “pure political correctness.” During his 2016 presidential campaign, he called for Tubman’s image to be relegated to the very rare $2 bill. Trump stated at the time: “Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it’s very rough when you take somebody off the bill.” (nytimes.com, May 22) Trump has frequently hosted announcements in front of Jackson’s portrait, even a 2017 event honoring the Navajo (Diné) code talkers, World War II veterans.
The same day that Mnuchin made his decision, a white New York designer, Dano Wall, tweeted in response, “We’ll see about that.” Wall took the initiative to produce a 3-D stamp image of Tubman to superimpose over Jackson’s. He initially made 500 stamps, which sold out immediately. He plans to reproduce another 5,000 for others to use.
Wall stated, “Putting Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill would have constituted a monumental symbolic change, disrupting the pattern of white men who appear on our bills, and, by putting her on the most popular note currently in circulation, indicates exactly what kind of a life we choose to celebrate; what values we, as a country, most hope to emulate. Harriet Tubman’s unparalleled grit, intelligence and bravery over the course of her long life certainly make her worthy of such an honor.” (Washington Post, May 23)
To recognize Tubman, no matter the form of the act, would be to acknowledge that there was resistance to slavery. It’s the last thing this administration wants anyone, especially young people, to be inspired by.
Even the so-called liberal President Bill Clinton could not bring himself to publicly apologize for slavery in the late 1980s. Then, a bill in Congress sparked debate over why Black people should have reparations from the corporations and government who became rich from the unpaid labor from enslaved ancestors — unpaid labor amounting to trillions of dollars.