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Capitalizing on Harriet

In case you missed it, Harriet Tubman has suddenly gotten hot. Call it what you will, but she's trending, she's page view bait, she's tweet-able, which is the best kind of hot these days. Not bad for an escaped slave from Dorchester County and courageous Underground Railroad pioneer who would have turned a youthful 193 in March.

For generations, the onetime Civil War spy and nurse, suffragist and civil rights activist was just another dry entry in the history books, someone kids had to learn about, recall for a U.S. history test or Black History Month celebration and then discard like so many factoids. But somewhere along the line, her life story proved too compelling to treat so ignominiously.

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It started when a 9-year-old girl named Sofia wrote to President Barack Obama observing that there weren't any women's faces on paper money, to which Mr. Obama suggested changing that situation was a "pretty good idea." Then someone noticed that such a move doesn't require an act of Congress but merely an order from the Secretary of the Treasury. A grassroots campaign called Women on 20s conducted a poll to find out what female face might be a suitable replacement for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

In the end, it was a four-way final culled from 15 nominees with the woman frequently described as the "Moses of her people" besting groundbreaking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt by about 7,000 votes, 118,328 to 111,227. Such online polling may not be scientific, but it sounds like poetic justice: The current $20 bill tenant, President Andrew Jackson, was an owner of slaves and the instigator of the Native Americans' infamous "Trail of Tears." Also, he's had a pretty good currency run, having served on the double-sawbuck since 1928.

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We have lamented on this page before that Ms. Tubman has not gotten the respect she deserves in her native state. Four years ago, when the General Assembly pondered whether she might not be the ideal subject for a statue in the U.S. Capitol as one of only two representatives of Maryland allowed in the National Statuary Hall Collection, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller nixed the idea. He preferred the state instead keep John Hanson, the first president of the Continental Congress and an historic figure who, if he sprang back to life tomorrow in full Colonial regalia and sporting a name tag, could safely wander the streets without fear of being recognized.

Ms. Tubman deserves better — although she might not be surprised at Maryland's failure to capitalize on her new-found fame. She was ill-treated on the plantation — famously knocked unconscious and bleeding from a likely skull fracture by a furious overseer tossing a two-pound rock. There was a sizable bounty placed on her head as she escaped on foot to Pennsylvania. "I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom," she later recalled of that momentous day. "I was a stranger in a strange land."

The opening of the Eastern Shore's Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument next year should help reverse that trend. Legislation designating a portion of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge for that purpose was just signed into law by President Obama last December. The National Park Service will also occupy a nearby 480-acre farm that served as a station in the Underground Railroad. Even Dorchester County now modestly promotes Ms. Tubman's history there — as it does sharpshooter Annie Oakley who lived in Cambridge toward the end of her life.

That's great, but if Ms. Tubman winds up on the $20 bill, the stakes will be raised (if you can pardon the expression). You can't buy publicity like that (did it again). Traditionalists may pitch a fit, but you could scarcely choose a more heroic figure — or a better time for Maryland to embrace someone who challenged white men of property with seemingly little interest in the concerns of women, the poor or people of color. At the very least, a little diversity in the American billfold is overdue. And instead of plastering the names of the latest elected governors, mayors or slogans on roadside signs welcoming visitors to Maryland, why not proudly proclaim this as the state of Harriet Tubman? That's something people might actually care about.

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