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A fitting tribute for Harriet Tubman

The U. S. Treasury recently announced that a woman's visage will appear on what the department calls The New 10 dollar bill and plans to makes its selection by the end of the year. In May, the advocacy group Women on 20 held an online poll to identify fitting candidates to replace Andrew Jackson's mug on the $20 bill and announced that Harriet Tubman received the most votes.

There is a newfound groundswell of interest in Tubman, partly due to the federal government's 2014 designation of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in upstate New York and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Also, the State of Maryland is building a new visitors center at a new state park created in her honor, which is set to open next year.

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Many Americans know that Tubman put her own life at risk to free about 60 people along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Few realize, however, that she lived for 50 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and continued to fight for women's rights, temperance and better treatment for the poor, the sick and the elderly.

Tubman always had a tough life and began suffering narcolepsy and seizures as a teenager after an errantly thrown weight hit her in the head. In 1859, she bought a seven-acre farm in Auburn, N.Y., from prominent politician William Seward. Leaving the South after the Civil War on the way to her homestead, a train conductor accused her of carrying forged papers. Tubman protested, and she broke her arm during the ensuing struggle.

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Once in New York, she lived with her infirm parents and six other relatives. Attesting to her generosity, Tubman fed and cared for anyone who walked in off the street. That winter, she and her family nearly starved, and they burned their fence for firewood. Though proud, she took money from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and social reformer Lucretia Mott, who lamented Tubman's proclivity to put the needs of others over her own.

For several years, Aunt Harriet, as she was universally known, lived off the proceeds of her authorized biography, but the 1880s brought tough years. Her parents died, her house burned down and her husband, 20 years her junior, passed away in 1888.

Still, during her 70s, she found a way to battle for women's causes, particularly the right to vote in the 1890's. In addition to serving as an honored guest at rallies in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., she shared a podium with Susan B. Anthony in Rochester. According to her writing collaborator, Tubman "generally attended every meeting of women, on whatever subject, if possible to do so."

Beyond politics, she displayed unusual empathy and dignity and her "honest and true benevolence of purpose... commanded respect," according to one Auburn dignitary.

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By the 1890's, her Civil War pension came through and Tubman ran an informal shelter for the infirm and the indigent at her home. Wanting to create something more permanent and professional, she incorporated the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in 1895.

In 1903, she deeded the home to the A.M.E. Zion Church, along with 26 acres of property, including part of her original landholding augmented with an adjacent 25-acre farm that she bought.

When Aunt Harriet ran her home, she offered food and shelter "to every one outcast." But she expressed disappointment after the church took over and charged residents a $100 fee to enter the facility. "I wanted to make a rule that nobody should come in unless they didn't have no money at all," she said.

In 1905, she attended a Boston rally held by proponents of another pet cause, the Christian Temperance Union, which fought to ban alcohol. Confined to a wheelchair toward the end of her life, she became a resident at the home she founded and died in 1913 at age 93.

The entire life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, who maintained the fight for justice beyond her Underground Railroad exploits, is certainly worth commemorating. Replacing Alexander Hamilton or Andrew Jackson on our paper currency is a fitting tribute to a remarkable person.

Marc Ferris is the author of "Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem." His email is mferris16@yahoo.com.

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