For many, Harriet Tubman should be face of new $10 bill

You could bet $10 that Harriet Tubman will be picked to as the only female face on current U.S. currency

With U.S. Treasury officials committing to a putting a woman on a redesigned $10 bill, a front-runner for that numismatic honor appears to be Maryland's own Harriet Tubman.

The woman who was born into slavery on an Eastern Shore plantation and became the most renowned of the Underground Railroad leaders has already won an online "election" for the female face that voters wanted to see on a bill.

And she is certainly having a moment: A national monument and park in her name are scheduled to open on the Eastern Shore, and an HBO miniseries starring Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis is in the works.

"She carries a lot of historic weight," said Kate Clifford Larson, whose Tubman biography, "Bound for the Promised Land," inspired the miniseries. "She's sort of the ultimate patriot, the ultimate freedom fighter, a civil rights activist. Americans really identify with that story, that passion."

For Tubman's descendants on the Eastern Shore, seeing her on a $10 bill would be a fitting tribute to the valiant woman who ushered hundreds of slaves into freedom.

"It's long due," said great-great-niece Valerie Ross Manokey, 79. "She's gone, and yet she has come back."

The push to see Tubman represented not just in museums and parks but in the wallets of Americans has been waged on a number of fronts.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, recently joined with a Republican colleague, John Katko of New York, to introduce the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act, which would require the Treasury to put the abolitionist's likeness on a U.S. currency note by 2017.

"Harriet Tubman was called the Moses of her people," Cummings said in a statement. "Born in Maryland, she escaped slavery and courageously fought for the freedom of other slaves before the Civil War. She continued to battle injustice and inequality until her death. Placing Harriet Tubman on our U.S. currency is a fitting tribute to a woman who fought to make the values enshrined in our Constitution a reality for all Americans."

An online campaign, Women on 20s, has been lobbying for the U.S. to put a female face on $20 bills by 2020, the centennial of women winning the right to vote. They asked the public to cast online ballots, and after more than 600,000 votes were tallied, Tubman emerged the victor.

"I don't think I was so much surprised as pleased," said Women on 20s founder Barbara Ortiz Howard. "I kind of regularly find new ways to appreciate her contributions to society and how she can lead the way to the future."

There likely was not much ballot-stuffing involved, with just one vote per email address. But in March, Baltimore's City Council did adopt a resolution urging all residents to vote for Tubman.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that a new design would be unveiled in 2020 featuring a woman's portrait on paper currency — but on the $10 bill rather than $20. The reason was that the smaller denomination was the one Treasury officials had already scheduled for an updated design, officials said.

In another move that was met with some disappointment, Treasury officials noted that Alexander Hamilton, who is on the current $10 bill, will remain part of the design in some way.

"I'm not sure how that would work," Howard said. "If we're commemorating the centennial, it should be the exclusive domain of an exemplary woman."

Additionally, Howard said, the Treasury needs to address Women on 20s' other goal, which is to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill, for his role in the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Tubman is not the only Marylander to be floated as a possibility for Lew to consider. He is not expected to announce a decision for several months.

TV newswoman Maria Shriver tweeted Thursday that her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, "is a good choice." The Potomac resident, sister of President John F. Kennedy and wife of Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver died in 2009.

That was just one tweet to use the hashtag suggested by Treasury for social media nominations, #TheNew10.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Baltimore native, issued a statement Wednesday lauding the decision to put a woman on the $10 bill as "exciting news for all Americans." She did not nominate a specific woman for the honor, but said she looked forward to "a lively debate" on the subject.

"The new bills may be worth ten dollars," she said, "but the recognition of women's leadership in our history is worth much, much more."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/jean_marbella

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