Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress taken photographer H.B. Lindsley between 1860 and 1870. (REUTERS/Library of Congress)

After the U.S. Treasury announced it will put Harriet Tubman on the front of the new $20 bill, replacing the slave owner Andrew Jackson, some applauded the move as overdue recognition of an American hero.

Others found it insulting to Tubman’s legacy — and frankly ironic. The abolitionist icon, after all, fought the oppressive system that launched our economy. Why would she want to become a symbol of it?

 

The debate started last year when Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced a woman would appear on the redesigned $10 bill, scheduled to arrive in 2020, to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote. In one memorable C-Span clip, Americans called in with their picks:

Harriet Tubman.
Pocahontas.
Princess Diana.
Harriet Tubman.

As chatter grew about why Tubman should become the first woman to grace our paper currency  accompanied by a simultaneous activist-run web campaign to get a woman on the $20 bill writer Feminista Jones presented a controversial counter-argument in an essay that went viral. There’s no place for women, especially women of color, she asserted, on America’s money.

Wrote Jones:

Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets. She repeatedly put herself in the line of fire to free people who were treated as currency themselves. She risked her life to ensure that enslaved black people would know they were worth more than the blood money that exchanged hands to buy and sell them. I do not believe Tubman, who died impoverished in 1913, would accept the “honor.”

Historians say Tubman, the most famous of the Underground Railroad's conductors, was born a slave around 1820 in Maryland. She ran away in 1849, following the North Star by night to Philadelphia.

The next year, after saving money as a maid, she returned south to save her sister’s family. Then she returned for others. For the next decade, she guided more than 300 slaves to freedom, risking her life and freedom over 19 trips.

She will not appear on the $10 bill, which will be the first redesign to hit American wallets, in 2020, Lew said Wednesday. Alexander Hamilton, awash in unexpected Broadway fame, will hold his position with a new addition of suffragists.  

Tubman will instead become the new face of the $20 bill (with Jackson relegated to the back). He elaborated in an open letter:

The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old.  I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.  

A spokesperson for the Treasury would not say when, exactly, the new $20 bill will come out.

Zoe Samudzi, a feminist writer in Oakland, promptly told her 14,300 Twitter followers Wednesday the Treasury got it wrong. Tubman, she wrote, was bought and sold as a commodity. And the government celebrates her by… putting her on money?

“I'd imagine the Treasury aren't masters of irony,” Samudzi told The Post in an email, “but I’m mulling over the irony of a black woman who was bought and sold being ‘commemorated’ on the $20 bill (without also taking steps for economic recompense for black folks who are descendants of enslaved peoples) and I can't stop shaking my head.”

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, saw the development as positive. Tubman wasn’t against money, she said. She spent it to pry others from slave owners.

“She used hers to go back into a place where she had a bounty on her head,” Higginbotham said. “It says something about how she thinks about money. She used money as a way to help mankind.”

(At the end of her life, it turns out, Tubman received a pension check every month for being both a veteran and the widow of a veteran. The amount? $20.)

Clara Small,  a retired history professor at Salisbury University, who has written about the history of slavery in Maryland, said she expected backlash. She remembered the short life of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, which got stuck in vending machines and was discontinued in 1999 after just 20 years.

Small wondered if a woman would ever replace one of the paper Founding Fathers. “Things happen very slowly,”  she said of the Treasury, “especially if you don't want to do it.”

She hopes the addition of Tubman to the $20 bill is a sign of progress, something the freedom fighter likely would approve.

“This gives hope that maybe women will be accepted as equals,” Small said. “As a president.”

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has announced major changes to three U.S. currency notes in the coming years after long and controversial process. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

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