The Trump administration refused Thursday to commit to putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Reneging on an Obama administration decision to replace slave owner Andrew Jackson — President Trump’s favorite president — with Tubman, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained he would base a new $20 bill design on preventing counterfeiting rather than on a new portrait.
“Ultimately, we will be looking at this issue,” Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview. “It’s not something I’m focused on at the moment.”
Tubman never waited for a man to affirm her.
Tubman reveled in defying men, defying governments, defying slavery, defying Confederate armies and slave catchers who put a $40,000 bounty on her head.
This black woman who stood 5 feet tall was utterly and completely fearless.
“I had reasoned this out in my mind,” Tubman once said, “there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Tubman was born Araminta Ross sometime between 1819 and 1823 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where officials recently dedicated landscapes and waterways as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Historic National Park.
Tubman’s maternal grandmother had arrived in this country via the Middle Passage on a slave ship. Tubman was enslaved by a man named Edward Broadess. When she was about 13, she refused to help a slave overseer capture a runaway. The overseer threw a two-pound lead weight at the runaway. The weight mistakenly hit Tubman in the head, splitting her skull, according to the Harriet Tubman Museum & Education Center in Cambridge, Md.
Tubman was unconscious two or three days and would continue to suffer chronic seizures the rest of her life. The injury caused sleeping spells or narcolepsy, which would cause her to drop into a deep sleep anywhere and at any time of day. Broadess tried to sell her as damaged property but failed.
He tried again when Tubman was 26. She prayed that God would kill him. A week later, he was dead. In 1844, she married John Tubman, a free black man. She changed her first name to Harriet — which was her mother’s name — and took her husband’s last name, Tubman.
In 1849, worried that she and others would be sold to another plantation, Tubman decided to escape. She could not convince her husband to leave with her. So she escaped with two of her brothers — Ben and Henry — from Poplar Neck Plantation. But soon, Ben and Henry became frightened and turned back, according to the Tubman museum.
Harriet continued her journey, traveling by foot 90 miles, crossing Delaware and arriving in Pennsylvania. “I had crossed the line,” she would say later. “I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
In Philadelphia, she worked as a household servant and saved up enough money to return to the South to help others escape. In 1850, Tubman returned to Maryland for her niece and niece’s husband. A year later, in 1851, she returned for her husband, but he had taken another wife.
Despite danger and laws carrying severe penalties for helping enslaved people escape, Tubman kept returning. According to an 1849 Maryland law, assisting or encouraging an enslaved person to escape carried penalties of imprisonment, threats to be sold further South and a punishment of “39 stripes with a whip.”
Slave owners issued huge rewards for Tubman’s capture. By 1856, rewards for her added up to $40,000 — about $1 million in today’s currency, according to the Tubman museum. Still, she kept coming back. She made at least 19 trips, freeing more than 300 enslaved people, guided by the North Star along the underground railroad.
In 1854, she came back for her brothers. Three years later, in 1857, she returned for her mother and father and journeyed with them all the way into Canada.
On her return trips, she would often sing, “Come down, Moses,” a warning notice to those who wanted to escape, that she was ready to guide them. People called her the “Moses of her people.”
“I freed a thousand slaves,” she once said. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
She carried a pistol. “If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out a gun and said, ‘You’ll be free or die a slave!’” according to a Library of Congress account of her life. “Tubman knew that if anyone turned back, it would put her and other escaping slaves in danger of discovery, capture or even death.”
Historians still marvel at Tubman’s brilliance in avoiding capture and her stealth. She often dressed like a man. Bounty hunters did not realize it was a woman helping people escape.
Tubman once told a story about how on one of her return trips to Maryland, she passed one of her old owners walking down the same side of the street. He did not recognize her, and she did not flinch.
During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse, a cook and a spy for the Union. According to the book, “Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent,” by Thomas Allen, Tubman worked as a spy for the Union and was connected to the abolitionist John Brown, who led the raid against a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va., which is now in West Virginia.
When Brown was arrested, he was carrying papers that connected him to Tubman, whom he called “General Tubman.” Brown referred to Tubman as “he” and “him.”
Allen wrote that Tubman was the only woman who led men into battle during the Civil War. Tubman persuaded formerly enslaved men to track Confederate camps and report on their movements.
“In 1863, she went with Colonel James Montgomery and about 150 black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina,” according to the Library of Congress. “Because she had inside information from her scouts, the Union gunboats were able to surprise the Confederate rebels.”
They raided plantations in South Carolina and set fire to buildings, destroying bridges and freeing more slaves.
“At first when the Union Army came through and burned plantations, slaves hid in the woods,” according to the Library of Congress. “But when they realized that the gunboats could take them behind Union lines to freedom, they came running from all directions, bringing as many of their belongings as they could carry. Tubman later said, ‘I never saw such a sight.’ ”
After the war, in 1866, Tubman was traveling with a “half-fare ticket” from Philadelphia to New York, when the conductor ordered her to move to the smoking car, according to the book, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” by Kate Clifford Larson.
Tubman refused to budge. “She explained that she was working for the government and was entitled to ride wherever she liked.”
The conductor yelled, “We don’t carry niggers for half-fare,” the book recounts. Then the conductor tried to pull her off the train. “But Tubman’s legendary strength apparently outmatched him,” Larson wrote.
The conductor called for help and two other men pried her fingers loose from the car, broke her arm and threw her into the smoking car, “possibly breaking several of her ribs.”
She called the conductor “a copperhead scoundrel, for which he choked her,” Larson wrote. “She told him she didn’t thank anybody to call her a colored person.” She preferred to be called black or Negro. “She said she was as proud of being a black woman as he was of being white.”
On March 10, 1913, Tubman, died of pneumonia in Auburn, N.Y. She often said she never failed to deliver her passengers to freedom. “On my Underground Railroad,” she said, “I [never] run my train off [the] track. I never lost a passenger.”
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