Harriet Tubman to be African-American face on $20 bill

Dad, can I borrow a Tubman? Maryland abolitionist replaces Andrew Jackson on the face of a $20

Maryland's own Harriet Tubman will become the first African-American to be pictured on the face of U.S. paper currency, and the first woman to receive this honor in more than 125 years.

Jacob J. Lew, secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department, announced Wednesday that the picture of the famous abolitionist would grace the $20 bill. That bill — along with redesigned $10 and $5 bills and a new tactile feature aimed at helping visually impaired people — will be unveiled in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the year women received the right to vote. The newly configured bills will showcase other historic figures such as Susan B. Anthony and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During a news conference, Lew and U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios said that it would be difficult to overestimate the symbolic importance of honoring Tubman.

"In a world where people get their money from money machines, twenty-dollar bills have taken new meaning," Lew said.

"For too long, women have been absent from our currency. Harriet Tubman is one of the great American stories that speaks to the ability of one individual with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit to make a difference in democracy and to leave a mark on the world. I cannot think of a more powerful image to put on our currency."

The new bills will effectively bump the greenback's current occupant, Andrew Jackson, from the face of the $20 to the reverse side, where he will be silhouetted against the image of the White House.

The decision regarding Jackson, a slaveholder who also forced the relocation of Native Americans under the Indian Removal Act, a migration known as the Trail of Tears, is controversial.

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson decried the decision during a live appearance on Fox News, suggesting that Tubman's image be put instead on a $2 bill.

"Andrew Jackson was the last president who actually balanced the federal budget," Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, told Neil Cavuto of the Fox Business Network.

"In honor of that, we kick him off the money. I love Harriet Tubman. I love what she did. But we can find another way to honor her, maybe on a two-dollar bill."

But Wednesday's announcement was praised widely by others, including Tubman's descendants.

"My family is really excited," said Charles E.T. Ross, 50, of Cambridge, Dorchester County. Tubman was his great-great-great-aunt.

"It's been so overdue for so long. Canada and other countries have celebrated my aunt for a long time. When I was growing up, I heard about her from my family, and not because we studied her in school. Finally, America is getting on board and giving my aunt the recognition she deserves."

Tubman was born to slaves in Dorchester County about 1820, probably on a plantation near the Blackwater River. She escaped and made about 13 missions to rescue dozens of enslaved people (figures vary), using a network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she was a spy and a nurse for the Union army.

She left Maryland in 1849, though she made periodic trips back into the state to help enslaved people through 1857.

The remaining two-thirds of her life were spent in Auburn, New York.

A Maryland museum devoted to Tubman's legacy, the Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Cambridge, is only open part-time.

In 2011, the state Senate rejected a proposal to swap a statue of Tubman for one of John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress, in the national statuary collection in the U.S. Capitol.

But the freedom fighter will soon get more recognition in the state of her birth. A new national monument, national park and state park are being built to celebrate Tubman's legacy. The visitor center at the state park, on 17 acres south of Cambridge, is expected to open next year.

"Harriet Tubman is an African-American shero," said Clara L. Small, professor emeritus of history of Salisbury University, who has published a scholarly article and part of a book about Tubman.

"When things in my life get crazy, I think of all the trials and tribulations she went through. I think of this woman who was illiterate and who was severely beaten. I think of the strength of character of a woman who suffered many setbacks and who was betrayed, but who persevered."

The campaign to recognize Tubman was spearheaded by the online grassroots organization Women on 20s. Some 600,000 ballots were cast last year in two rounds of voting. Tubman came in first with 118,328 votes, ahead of Eleanor Roosevelt (111,227) and Rosa Parks (64,173).

"Getting on currency gives you currency. It gives you name recognition," Susan Ades Stone, the organization's executive director, said. "Now kids in school will have something tangible they can look at and connect to the stories about these women."

Tubman is the first ever African-American on paper currency, according to a Treasury Department spokesman, and the third woman to be recognized in this manner, though several women have been featured on circulating coins.

Martha Washington was on the $1 Silver Certificate of 1891, the spokesman said, and Pocahontas, who was Native American, appeared on the $20 National Currency note from 1865 through 1869.

But Tubman won't be alone for very long. Lew and Rios announced the following changes to the $5 and $10 bills:

• Founding father Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury and modern-day folk hero, thanks to the hit musical bearing his name on Broadway, will remain on the face of the $10 bill.

The reverse of the $10 will feature five leaders of the suffrage movement, who won women the right to vote. Arrayed on the steps of the Treasury Department will be Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.

•U.S. President Abraham Lincoln will remain on the face of the $5 bill.

But the reverse will feature three people, who made history at the Lincoln Memorial: King, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and African-American opera singer Marian Anderson.

•For the first time, new currency also will include a tactile feature to aid people who can't see and must identify denominations through touch alone.

Though the design of the bills will be made public in 2020, it could take several years more before someone can whip out a crisp Tubman greenback to pay for a pizza or gas. Lew was vague when asked when the bills would enter circulation but noted that designing currency so that it can't be counterfeited is a time-consuming, complex process.

"Security remains our first priority," he said.

For Ross, a teacher and youth mentor, that day can't come too quickly.

"It makes me proud," he said. "It makes me say, 'OK, my aunt started this. Where do I get on board?' That's why I work with youth in the communities. She freed slaves. I'm trying to free minds."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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