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U.S. currency from the 1800s featured signatures of black men

U.S. currency from the 1800s featured signatures of black men

A photograph of 19th century abolitionist Harriet Tubman is up for auction at Swan Auction Galleries. 

(AP)

While we await the final decision whether to place the image of Harriet Tubman on American currency, we can take comfort in the fact that several African American men’s signatures have at least appeared on it.

Following the Civil War, Republican Party leaders were known to appoint notable African Americans to government jobs. One of the most spectacular of those jobs was “register of the Treasury” — spectacular because the name of the register of the Treasury appeared on the currency of the time: silver certificates of different sizes and denominations issued in series.

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Four African American men were appointed as Register of the Treasury. President William McKinley appointed Mississippi’s Blanche K. Bruce in 1897 and Judson W. Lyons of Georgia in 1898. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed William T. Vernon of Kansas in 1906, and Tennessee’s James C. Napier in 1910. The signature of these men appears on several series of silver certificates.

A portion of Wyman Park Dell is renamed "Harriet Tubman Grove," honoring Maryland native Harriet Tubman, a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

I went to the coin and currency show recently held in at the Baltimore Convention Center to witness this for myself. And there I stood with tearing eyes, holding pieces of African-American history in my trembling hands.

A $500 note in the 1880 series was signed by B.K. Bruce. The intricately designed note included an image of Senator Charles Sumner, a stalwart supporter of civil rights for freed slaves.

I held a $5 silver certificate in the 1896 series with delicate, female angels on the front who appeared to be overseeing a battle. Judson W. Lyons signed it.

The series of silver certificates issued in 1899 is dubbed the Black Eagle series because of a bold black eagle on the obverse perched upon an American flag with a picture of the capitol in the background. The $1 note with Lyon’s signature features the image of the two American presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, who worked together after the Civil War to remove vestiges of Confederate nationalism, racism and slavery.

Another certificate worth 10 silver dollars in the 1899 series issued was signed by W.T. Vernon. This note bears the image of Thomas A. Hendricks, vice president to Grover Cleveland. William T. Vernon served for four years as register of the treasury, having been reappointed by President William Howard Taft. He was later replaced by James C. Napier.

The secretary of the treasury also signed the currency. Lee McClung, also appointed by President Taft, was succeeded by Carmi A. Thompson. I was informed that the two most valuable notes in the 1899 series were signed by Vernon and McClung and by Napier and Thompson.

Political forces opposed to African American men’s signatures being on the money eventually won the day, ending that glorious period in our history. Let’s hope such forces don’t prevent Harriet Tubman from taking her well-earned place on the $20 bill.

Margaret D. Pagan (www.margaretpagan.com) is a Baltimore writer who teaches workshops for the Black Writers' Guild of Maryland, Inc., of which she is past president. She is currently researching and writing a chronology of African American history from 1870 to 1970.

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