Harriet Tubman would not believe what Dorchester County is doing in her name, but she might not be surprised by President Trump’s casual dismissal of his predecessor’s decision to put her on the front of a new $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson, long revered as the people’s president but a slaveholder who also sought to banish indigenous Americans.
Tubman, born into slavery as Araminta Ross in this sparsely settled county of woods, farms and marsh on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, fled to freedom in 1849, then returned again and again to lead 70 family members and friends out of bondage. Abolitionist John Brown called her the “general” for her fearless role, and anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison nicknamed her “Moses.”
Her life and legacy are celebrated in Church Creek at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, a joint federal-state effort. Open since only March, its museum features an enlarged picture of the $20 bill with her silhouette in the center and the words “Coming Soon.” The caption calls the banknote “the most popular currency in the world” and promises its release in 2020, on the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote.
But Trump seems determined to erase all vestiges of the Obama legacy. During the campaign, he declared his opposition to changing the currency; he suggested she appear instead on the rarely used $2 bill. In August, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, when asked, was noncommittal, suggesting that no change is needed.
That would certainly disappoint many in Dorchester County, which aggressively promotes itself as the “Birthplace of Harriet Tubman, American Hero.” The irony is striking: During the 1960s, the county seat of Cambridge saw racial fire and fury and the longest federal occupation by the National Guard in that tumultuous decade.
South of the Choptank River, traditionally the dividing line between the shore’s somewhat more progressive and more conservative banks, Dorchester has come a long way.
When I visited in the late 1970s, African Americans were living in chicken coop houses and Cambridge was rigidly segregated — the town closed its public pool rather than integrate, and the black population was unrepresented on the county council, despite comprising 30 percent of the population. At-large voting was to blame.
It took legal action and the Justice Department to change that — under the 1965 voting rights law the Supreme Court largely eviscerated in 2013. Complying with a consent decree in 1985, the county replaced at-large with district voting, resulting in the election of the first black county council member. A separate suit led to a second black-majority district in the city. Today, 47 percent of Cambridge’s population is African American, two of Cambridge’s five city commissioners are black, and the city has its first black mayor, who is in her third term.
To be sure, high unemployment, poverty and other ills still disproportionately affect the black community. However, “Things have changed considerably,” said William Jarmon, an African American Cambridge native who left to teach school in suburban Washington and returned here in retirement. “Politically, there’s representation at every level.”
Jarmon, 74, is active in the Harriet Tubman Organization, established to perpetuate her legacy. Its members worked on the Church Creek project and welcome visitors from all over the country to the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, its small museum in downtown Cambridge. And now the county itself is seeking to capitalize on her roots. But there remains uncertainty over whether the honor will extend, as intended, to U.S. currency.
Two years ago, U.S. Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), who represents the Upstate district where Tubman lived after the Civil War until her death, introduced legislation to put her on the currency, not specifying which one.
When, in 2016, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said she would appear on the $20 bill in 2020, they chose not to pursue it. But with the Trump administration noncommittal or negative, they reintroduced the bill in September, this time specifying the denomination and the year of its release.
Dorchester citizens are already circulating petitions to support the effort. “I’m sure there will be no difficulty getting signatures,” Jarmon told me.
“I think if she came back and went into a rural area, she would say very little has changed except for roads to get there,” he said. “I think if she came back today to Cambridge, she could truly say there is no evidence of slavery as she knew it, but she might find some of the African Americans living under the same conditions.” She might also discover the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, with 36 historic sites charted on a driving-tour map she could pick up at the county visitor center in Cambridge.
The face on the $20 bill is more than just small change.
Eugene L. Meyer of Silver Spring is the author of “Chesapeake Country.”