Stop stalling and put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill

The Tribune combed through paper currency for hundreds of countries to find out who Harriet Tubman will join when she debuts on the $20. It's a versatile group of leaders, artists and those who fought for freedom and women's rights.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has for months played coy with the idea of putting abolitionist, Civil War spy and suffragist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. He’s thrown out a variety of vague excuses not to commit to a plan that was put in place by the Obama administration to replace Andrew Jackson with the Maryland native’s portrait as part of an overhaul of U.S. currency, but abruptly pushed to the side after President Donald Trump took office.

Mr. Mnuchin has stuck to talking points that focus largely on the treasury department’s priority of making new paper bills resistant to counterfeiting and not on whose face adorns U.S. money.


But the face of our country’s currency does matter. Those who appear on bills should represent key figures in history whose life stories exemplify what the country stands for, and Tubman would fill a glaring gap in the story our currency tells.

There’s no reason changing the person honored on the $20 bill can’t be done independently of any security upgrades. Consequently, we can’t help but wonder whether there are other reasons why Mr. Mnuchin is stalling on a choice that was made with much thought by the Obama administration and extensive input from the public. Tubman received the most votes among 15 women in a survey created by the group “Women on $20s,” who pushed for female representation among a sea of white male faces that now appear on monetary bills. Tubman would be the first woman and African American on U.S. paper currency.

It doesn’t help that Mr. Mnuchin’s boss has said having Tubman on the bill is about political correctness and that Mr. Trump has also also shown allegiance to Jackson, despite the fact the seventh president owned slaves and marginalized Native Americans, including signing the law that took away land from the country’s indigenous people. The current president also doesn’t hide his mission to steadily unravel most of Mr. Obama’s initiatives, which also doesn’t bode well for Tubman. We hope that such pettiness doesn’t get in the way of a well-deserved honor.

It’s still not clear whose face will be on the $20 bill in 2020.  Harriet Tubman is one of the possibilities.

Tubman is the antithesis to Jackson and more representative of what the country should be celebrating. Jack Lew, the treasury secretary under Mr. Obama, described it well when he said hers was “the essential story of American Democracy.”

Indeed, her life was one of inspiration and perseverance during a time when she and many like her were viewed as little more than somebody else’s property — a woman who escaped slavery at the age of 27 and then helped others to do the same. Nicknamed Moses after the prophet who led Hebrews to freedom from Egypt, she made the dangerous journey back to her native Dorchester County 13 more times to help nearly 70 family, friends and other slaves escape as leader of the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, Ms. Tubman guided gunboats containing black Union soldiers across swampy rivers to free 750 more people.

If the Trump administration won’t do the right thing, we hope that the U.S. Congress will instead. Maryland U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and his colleague from New York, Rep. John Katko, have introduced for the second year in a row legislation that mandated the treasury department place Ms. Tubman on Federal Reserve notes printed after Dec. 31, 2020. Congressional members should make it a priority to pass this legislation.

Mr. Cummings fittingly said that Tubman “fought to make the values enshrined in our Constitution a reality for all Americans.” Mr. Katko, who represents the city of Auburn where Tubman lived her last years, said she represents freedom and opportunity. That she does.

Tubman in recent years has gotten well-deserved recognition, including a statue being built at the State House in Annapolis and a state park that opened in her honor two years ago. In Baltimore, an area of the Wyman Park Dell that was once home to statues honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson was renamed Harriet Tubman Park Grove on the 105th anniversary of her death.


Her image on the $20 bill would be a nice addition to those accolades.