Why Is Harriet Tubman Sharing the $20 Bill With a Slave Owner?

How and why Jackson is still on U.S. currency is a riddle to me.
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Tamara White
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How and why Jackson is still on U.S. currency is a riddle to me.

Yesterday, one of my girlfriends sent me a text message that Harriet Tubman would soon be featured on the $20 bill, becoming the first African American to cover U.S. currency. I actually didn't believe it. "Is this for real?" I responded before quickly Googling the news. Several news sites confirmed the information to be true and my cynicism turned to excitement. 

Unfortunately, it didn't last long.

As I dug deeper, I was disappointed in the design of both the $20 and $10 bills. Although Tubman will be on the front of the $20, I found that she is sharing the bill with Andrew Jackson. In addition, the $10 bill will continue to feature Alexander Hamilton with the addition of five woman suffragettes. Lastly, the $5 will continue to house Abraham Lincoln. However, the back will include historic moments that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial including the 1939 performance of African American opera singer Marian Anderson and Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech." This concept sounds amazing and, of the three redesigns, it's the one that I’m most excited about.

Suffragettes Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who will be included on the back of the new $10 bill.

Suffragettes Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who will be included on the back of the new $10 bill.

I really do commend Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew for trying. I'm sure he faced enormous political pressure from a variety of directions to make any type of change to the current design. However, the way the bill design is being implemented dilutes the very historic move of featuring multiple women on our currency.

I'll start with my issues around the $20 bill. I'm upset that Harriet Tubman is sharing space with Andrew Jackson. Most of us know Harriet Tubman from our grade school Black History Month activities. However, those tend to be sedate, and mine certainly didn't include the fact that Tubman suffered a lifetime of abuse while in bondage.

Her misery started early, when her three older sisters were sold out of state (two were forced to leave young children behind), fracturing their family. At six years old she was hired out as a night nurse to a white family with a baby. If the child woke in the middle of the night and cried, Harriet was beaten severely. She carried the physical scars from that time period on her back for the rest of her life. Around the age of twelve on an errand for her master, a slave boy was fleeing from his overseer. Trying to stop the boy, the overseer threw a heavy metal weight that struck Tubman in the head, fracturing her skull. She never received medical care, and the injury left her with a lifetime of headaches and seizures. 

Because the injury diminished her value, her owner tried to sell her but was unable to find a buyer for a sick slave. Years later, when Tubman fell sick again her owner attempted to sell her but was again unsuccessful. After he died, Tubman and two of her brothers made their first escape attempt. Over a period of eight years, Tubman made several trips to the south guiding those in bondage to freedom. She became a fixture on the abolitionist speaker circuit and dedicated her life to freeing her fellow bondman and woman.

Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States. He was a war hero known for founding the Democratic Party and for his support of individual liberty. Which is interesting for a man who in addition to owning nearly 150 human beings during his lifetime, was also responsible for the immensely harmful Indian Removal Act. The Act, forcibly removed Native Americans from their ancestral homelands to settlements west of the Mississippi and resulted in the heartbreaking "Trail of Tears." By modern day standards, he was a pretty terrible human being.

How and why Jackson is still on U.S. currency is a riddle to me. Even more difficult to understand is why the great freedom fighter - Harriet Tubman after being subjected to so much cruelty by slaveholders during her life, will in memoriam be forever connected to one. It seems a cruel joke to me. And one that makes me wonder if having an African American woman on a greenback is worth the indignity of it all.

Alexander Hamilton on the front of the $10 bill, where he will remain.

Alexander Hamilton on the front of the $10 bill, where he will remain.

Then there is the $10 bill. The front will continue to feature Alexander Hamilton who has had resurgence in popularity since the debut of the Broadway musical about his life. On the back of the bill five suffragists will be featured including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul. These women were true freedom fighters. Not only did they campaign for women's rights and equality but worked in the anti-slavery movement as well.

Really. These ladies were badass. They spoke their minds and fought for what they believed in during a time when women were considered little more than their husband’s property. Adding them to the back of the $20 bill would have been the most amazing, powerful statement about the role of women in this country, ever. Think about it – a bill of our own. I don't even carry cash, but I would have started with a stack of twenties just to look at Harriet Tubman on the front and the suffragettes on the back. Instead, all five of them will share a bill with a man, causing me to question what that means in terms of women’s equality. Still, I suppose I should be happy with some progress. 

As Susan B. Anthony said, “Oh, if I could but live another century and see the fruition of all the work for women! There is so much yet to be done.” Indeed, Ms. Anthony, indeed.