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When will Harriet Tubman adorn the $20 bill?

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Jan. 25 that the Biden administration is working to put 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Biden’s White House basked in praise from allies in its early days when it pledged to look for ways to “speed up” the process of putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, replacing President Andrew Jackson, who owned enslaved people and forcibly relocated Native Americans.

But four months after taking office, there is little evidence that the administration has taken any steps to accelerate the schedule set out years ago by a small agency within the Treasury Department.

Despite the growing national push to honor the contributions of women and people of color — and Biden’s personal promise to do so — Tubman is still not set to appear on the $20 by the end of Biden’s first term, or even a hypothetical second term. If the current timeline holds, it will have taken a full 16 years to realize the suggestion of a 9-year-old girl whose 2014 letter to then-President Barack Obama publicly launched the process.

That strikes some as an embarrassment.

“If we can put a helicopter on Mars, we ought to be able to design a $20 bill in less than 20 years,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in an interview. “It’s all about commitment.”

The Tubman battle has become a case study in the difficulty of marshaling the bureaucratic machinery of government, according to activists who have been working for years to change America’s paper money to reflect what they say are its current values.

The delay is notable in part because Biden relied on a coalition of women and Black voters to win the White House and promised to mobilize every element of government to promote gender and racial equity. There has never been a Black person on U.S. currency, nor has there been a woman on a bill in the modern era, despite repeated attempts to diversify the currency.

Biden has made other efforts to update the nation’s imagery. He recently became the first president to visit Tulsa in commemoration of a race massacre there. He ordered that the Oval Office be cleared of a portrait of Jackson, who oversaw the Indian Removal Act that led to the “Trail of Tears.” President Donald Trump had installed the portrait of the seventh president, who is admired by some traditionalists for his populism and frontier image.

But removing the portrait has proven much easier than accelerating the actions of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a unit of the Treasury Department, which critics say displays scant interest in transforming the currency.

“They’re really happy to kick this as far down the road as possible, maybe until cryptocurrency takes over,” said Barbara Ortiz Howard, founder of Women on 20s, an advocacy group. “They don’t want to make the change, which I think is the only explanation for all of this nonsense.”

Treasury officials say changing the portrait on the $20 is not as simple as it sounds, largely because of the need for sophisticated anti-counterfeiting features.

“We are committed to the goal of redesigning U.S. currency to better reflect the history and diversity of our country,” Len Olijar, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said in a statement. “But the security of our currency remains paramount.”

Tubman is a unique figure in American history, escaping from slavery to become a well-known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who led enslaved people to freedom. She worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and after the victory threw herself into helping formerly enslaved people.

Harriet Tubman’s work as a spy

The honor of appearing on a country’s currency is inherently limited to a small group of national heroes. It enshrines a person as emblematic of a country’s values not through a remote monument but as a familiar symbol used in daily activity.

America’s paper money features an array of White male leaders: George Washington on the $1, Thomas Jefferson on the $2, Abraham Lincoln on the $5, Alexander Hamilton on the $10, Jackson on the $20, Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 and Benjamin Franklin on the $100. (In previous eras, some were more obscure; Grover Cleveland’s likeness graced the now-defunct $1,000.)

The Treasury Department announced in 2016 that Tubman would replace Jackson, and ever since, lawmakers and activists have been pushing to make it actually happen. Shaheen said she spoke privately to Biden’s aides during the transition, adding, “I think they’re serious. The question is: Given all the challenges, how do we expedite it?”

In the House, Reps. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) are drafting a letter to the Biden administration asking for an updated timeline on the Tubman move, according to a congressional aide familiar with the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private plans.

Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced legislation in January to require that any $20 bill printed after 2024 include a portrait of Tubman.

Olijar said the schedule for new currency is recommended by a group called the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence committee, which advises the treasury secretary on anti-counterfeiting issues. Under that schedule, both the $10 and the $50 notes are set to be released ahead of the $20.

“The primary reason currency is redesigned is for security against current and potential counterfeiting threats,” Olijar said. “The redesign timeline is driven by security feature development.”

Two senior Treasury officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, declined to say whether Secretary Janet Yellen would consider changing the order so the $20 could be produced ahead of the $10, or if Tubman might be moved to the $10 instead, as some boosters have suggested. (Hamilton might be hard to dislodge from the $10, given his popularity following the smash Broadway musical about his life.)

Changing America’s money has long been a glacial process. One Treasury aide said the blue thread that appears in the recently released $100 bill took the government a decade to develop.

Obama’s treasury secretary, Jack Lew, who publicly announced in 2016 that Tubman would go on the $20, said in an interview that he regularly prodded the Bureau of Engraving to accelerate its timeline.

“The bureaucracy thought I was pushing them too hard. I think it’s okay to push,” Lew said. “But you don’t push by saying, ‘I don’t care about security.’ You push by being respectful, asking questions and having a respectful back and forth.”

Lew said the process was “mind-numbingly slow,” but said some of the technical challenges are “real” and cannot be rushed. “My approach was a push, but not break,” Lew said. “I wouldn’t advocate pushing and breaking.”

Although some Democrats criticized the Trump administration for purportedly delaying the change, several government officials of both parties said that was not the case and the delay had more to do with bureaucratic obstacles.

“The Trump administration adhered to the Obama administration’s timetable while working as quickly as possible to develop a new note,” said Monica Crowley, who served as spokeswoman for Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. “Given the complexity of the process, it’s no wonder the Biden administration has also decided not to accelerate the bill’s release, if they release it at all.”

Meanwhile bureau officials successfully pushed for a new building, telling Congress they need the new $1.4 billion facility “to support the next generation of currency scheduled for release over the coming decade.” It is on course to be constructed in Beltsville, Md., about 100 miles from Tubman’s childhood home, which was recently discovered on the state’s Eastern Shore.

Complicating matters further, the effort to change the Jackson portrait is caught up in a 2008 court order that any new currency must include some kind of tactile signifier, similar to Braille, so those who are blind or visually impaired can distinguish between various denominations.

The American Council of the Blind sued the Treasury Department in 2002 to force the agency to add such features, and a federal judge ultimately ordered that the next security overhaul of the nation’s currency must include some type of tactile element.

Like supporters of the Tubman portrait, representatives of the blind are still waiting.

“Unless President Biden or someone at the White House gets actively involved with this issue, in negotiating a resolution or holding folks accountable, it’s not going to end,” said Eric Bridges, executive director of the American Council of the Blind, who has been involved with the litigation for years.

Bridges added, “The combination of Harriet Tubman adorning this first piece of accessible currency would make a powerful statement.”

Among those objecting to the tactile features are banks, who say it would cost billions for changes including upgrading ATMs and argue that the process of stacking currency would become more problematic. Still, countries including Canada and Australia have features on their currency that allow blind people to distinguish one denomination from another.

Some advocates for Tubman have joined forces with activists pushing for the tactile features. Both groups say all of these matters could be addressed far more quickly if the administration threw its weight behind the changes.

And researchers say that the Tubman change has been slowed by all the other matters, including the security overhaul.

“It doesn’t cost very much to change the portraiture — it’s just the everything else that they’re trying to do at the same time,” said Ruth Anne Robbins, a Rutgers law professor who co-wrote a paper on changes to the currency. “People have been asking now for just about a century to please put some women on the money.”

Her research shows how much easier it was to put Jackson on the currency than it’s proving to get him off it.

When the modern currency was first designed nearly a century ago, then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon received a typed memo from his staff suggesting individuals to be honored on the new bills, a copy of which was unearthed in the National Archives by Robbins and her colleague Genevieve Tung.

The October 1927 memo listed former president Grover Cleveland as the proposed face of the $20 and Jackson for the $1,000. Mellon crossed their names out and, with his pencil, ordered their positions reversed.

Reflecting on why the process to install Tubman is by comparison so much more involved, Robbins suggested, “There’s nobody who was really charged with making it happen.”

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.