Basically, Tubman was as tough as nails. The former slave risked her life countless times, and even performed an ad hoc dental surgery on herself while on the road for the Underground Railroad, knocking her front tooth out with a pistol, says biographer Catherine Clinton.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Wednesday that Tubman would be the new portrait on the $20 bill, booting former president Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner with a controversial legacy, to the back. I spoke with Clinton, the author of the 2004 biography of Tubman, "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom," about Tubman's remarkable story, and what the choice to put her on American money means.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you think of the news that Harriet Tubman will be the new face of the $20 bill?
It’s a great day for those interested in history. We’re quite used to seeing chiseled features of dead white presidents on the money, so to put a woman of color who had such a significant role in redefining freedom and America fulfilling its promise of independence is really exciting. Having someone like Harriet Tubman signifies that Americans are finally recognizing the contributions of women and African Americans to building our nation.
How do you think Harriet Tubman would feel about being on the 20?
I think it would be a shock to her to be so honored. She was such a humble person that I’m sure she would be very scornful in saying that it’s really not fitting for her to be singled out. She felt very much that she was part of a collective body, as part of the Underground Railroad.
Part of her story that’s less recognized is not just her work on the Underground Railroad, but her work during the Civil War, right?
She worked as a scout, as a spy, as really a liberator. One night during the Combahee River raid, she led Union gunboats up river to liberate over 750 slaves, deep in the heart of Confederate territory. Because she was working as a spy, she didn’t have the proper documentation, so after the war she couldn’t file for a pension. It wasn’t until 1899 that she received one. Not a widow’s pension, but a pension for her contribution as a military leader, as someone who was risking her life, which she had done for most of her career, from self-emancipation forward.
Is it true that that pension was $20 a month, the same bill that she will appear on?
Yes. It doesn’t look like a lot to us, but it would have been a fair amount in that time.
The Treasury mentioned that the new bills will have a feature that for the first time will help blind people distinguish among them. Is it true that Tubman herself had a disability? I know historical accounts say she experienced fits, seizures and powerful visions throughout her life.
Yes, isn’t it amazing and fitting that the bill that she will be on will be one of the first pieces of currency to have markers for people who are visually disabled. She was clearly disabled, and she has been embraced by those with disabilities. There are debates among scholars as to what her disability was. Was it an injury from childhood? When she was young, she was hit in the head by a heavy lead weight thrown by an overseer. Or was it the onset of narcolepsy, epilepsy? We have no medical records, we have no knowledge.
But how amazing is it that she took on this warrior role and worked on the Underground Railroad, and all the time, she was someone who was not completely physically healthful. We don’t know the source of it, but we do know that she was someone who never complained. There was a story when she was on the road she had a sore tooth, and she was worried it might prevent her from taking people to safety, so she pulled out her pistol and knocked out her front tooth, so the infection wouldn’t spread.
Are there other parts of her life that you think people should know more about?
I hope that people learn not just the story of the Underground Railroad, but her remarkable post-war career, where she was written about in the paper as a local philanthropist.
And later in life she was an outspoken advocate for women’s right to vote?
Definitely, she would go to the upstate conventions. She was so modest that she would not complain about the fact that she might arrive in a town like Rochester where there weren’t any integrated hotels, and she would have to sit up all night at the train station.
How has she been remembered up until now? Has she been gaining more attention recently?
If you look back at where Tubman stood in terms of American historical narrative just a decade ago, she was relegated to the children’s shelf. Her amazing accomplishments make her so beloved by schoolchildren, but I think that does a disservice to her if we don’t embrace her as what she was: a great American hero. Fighting for herself, for others. Think of all the lives she touched -- the people she brought to freedom who were able to marry and have children -- and how she symbolized freedom for so many who knew her as Moses.
So I was really committed to telling the full story. Because she worked secretly, clandestinely, because she would guide people to freedom in the night, she led a career that was disguised.
She died the same year that Rosa Parks was born. Many people in the African American community kept Tubman’s reputation and legacy alive, but there was no scholarly biography until 1943, and then it wasn’t until 2004 that actually three biographies came out at once, and since then she’s had quite a renaissance. My philosophy is let 100 Harriets bloom, and now we’ll probably have a billion Harriets bloom.
Is it true that you consulted with the Treasury as they were making this decision?
I was very lucky to be called in as a scholar to talk with Secretary Lew and with Treasurer Rosie Rios, who had really spearheaded this effort under Timothy Geithner, the previous treasury secretary. Lew was weighing the options, opening up the question of who should be on the money and having people write in to the Treasury.
When you met with them, what finalists were they considering?
It was completely open when we met last August. But when I met with him again in November, Secretary Lew had read my biography, and he wanted to discuss specific points, showing that he was looking carefully at Tubman’s entire career. Another scholar made the point that we have had a woman on our paper currency before, and that was Martha Washington, because of her marriage to a president. Wasn’t it time to put a woman on the money for her own accomplishments, not those achieved due to her relationship with a male? There were many worthy candidates being discussed at that meeting. Everyone had their favorite.
How do you think Tubman should be pictured on the currency? Many of the photographs of her that we see are from later in her life. Do you think that’s the right representation?
If you look in my book, you’ll find that there are many pictures of her wearing a turban, which was quite common for women in her era, particularly women of color. But I preferred to use on my cover an image of her where her hair is uncovered and she’s wearing a white collar. If you look at many of the portraits, she is often dressed in a white collar and portrayed as someone who is trying to demonstrate respectability and those values of a black woman’s decency and honor. It’s a hallmark that she is someone who is portrayed with great dignity, and others would comment on her neat appearance. So I certainly hope they use a portrait of her that honors that image that she put forth.
Is there anything else you think we should note?
I think putting her on the bill benefits Americans as much as it benefits her, because we really need to know more about our history, if you can put a woman on the money that had such a remarkable life and career and find that there are so many ordinary Americans or even political leaders who have so little knowledge about the Americans who built our country. The Underground Railroad was one of the most significant grassroots movements in American history. And it really was a tidal wave working against slavery, and a step toward fulfilling America’s democratic promise. By risking everything, Tubman showed just how important the fight against slavery was.