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Biden administration to reinvigorate effort to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill

President Joe Biden’s administration is taking steps to revive an effort to put famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, a Biden spokeswoman said Monday.

The plan, which was laid out by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016, was tabled by the Trump administration.

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The original idea was to issue the new notes in 2020 — the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. But in 2019, Trump’s Treasury Department announced that the plan wouldn’t be considered again until 2026, adding that officials were working on a redesign to protect the currency from counterfeiters.

But the Biden administration may breathe new life into the plan, which has broad support from Maryland legislators.

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“The Treasury Department is taking steps to resume efforts to put Harriet Tubman on the front of the new $20 notes,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki after a question from a reporter during a press briefing Tuesday.

Tubman, who was born a slave on a plantation in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, helped dozens of enslaved people escape to freedom. She is known as one of the most prolific “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, and is memorialized with a museum and educational center in Cambridge.

Tubman served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and later fought for women’s suffrage, delivering speeches across the country about her experiences. She also is memorialized in Baltimore, where part of Wyman Park Dell is named Harriet Tubman Grove. Last September, an educational sign was installed there, near where a Confederate monument to Gens. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee was removed by city officials in 2017.

“It’s important that our notes, our money … reflect the history and diversity of our country and Harriet Tubman’s image, gracing the new $20 note, would certainly reflect that,” Psaki said. “We’re exploring ways to speed up that effort.”

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Psaki said specifics on a new timeline for introducing a redesigned $20 note with Tubman would be announced when finalized by the Treasury Department. Biden selected Janet Yellen to be his Treasury secretary and on Monday evening she became the first woman to hold that position in the department’s 232 years.

Tubman’s portrait would replace the likeness of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, who was known for his populist political style, similar to that of President Donald Trump. Jackson has been widely criticized for his involvement in the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands.

In a statement, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, hailed the new administration’s decision to replace Jackson with Tubman.

“Show Us the Tubmans!” he wrote. “I have for years strongly supported the replacement of Andrew Jackson with Marylander Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill and will continue working in the Senate to ensure congressional support for the Department of the Treasury’s efforts to take this long-past-due national step forward.”

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) at midlife. President Joe Biden's administration may be reviving an effort to put Tubman on the front of the new $20 bills.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) at midlife. President Joe Biden's administration may be reviving an effort to put Tubman on the front of the new $20 bills. (Library of Congress)

Sen. Chris Van Hollen agreed.

“I’m glad to see the new Administration push through the roadblocks of the last — and to see this come to fruition after years of advocating for it,” he said in a statement. “Maryland will be forever proud of Harriet Tubman and her legacy, and this will help further recognize her pivotal role in our nation’s pursuit of a more perfect union.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also cheered the announcement.

“This is great news, and another way we can immortalize one of Maryland’s favorite daughters,” wrote Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, in a statement.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the late Maryland Congressman who represented Baltimore, was a prominent supporter of the effort. He co-sponsored a bill in February 2019 to require the Treasury to place Tubman on the $20 bill.

“Harriet Tubman fought to make the values enshrined in our Constitution a reality for all Americans—& it’s far past time that we recognize her place in history,” the Democrat wrote in a tweet after former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced the delay. “The Admin’s decision was unacceptable — it must be reconsidered.”

“She dedicated her life in selfless service to others and to the cause of freedom. Her unbelievable acts of heroism, courage, and sacrifice have more than earned her rightful place among our nation’s most pivotal leaders,” Hogan wrote in a letter to Mnuchin. “She deserves this honor.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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