Why Harriet Tubman Is A ‘Powerful’ Choice For American Currency by [email protected]
The Symbolism of Harriet Tubman
In a move that celebrates both the contributions of women and African-Americans, abolitionist Harriet Tubman will become the face of the new $20 bill, relegating President Andrew Jackson to the reverse side of the currency. Kate Clifford Larson, historian and author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, is joined by Michael O’Malley, professor of history at George Mason University, to discuss the importance and impact of the decision.
They discussed the announcement on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
[email protected]: What was your reaction to this announcement, which was made by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew?
Kate Clifford Larson: There are no words to describe how I felt. Thrilled. Excited. I cried a little bit. What an amazing moment, not only for Harriet Tubman but for women and this nation. It really was a great decision and a great announcement.
Michael O’Malley: I was delighted. I think she’s a good figure. Historians disagree about whom they might pick. There are lots of people you could pick. The idea that it has to be a particular general or a particular president is relatively new.
[email protected]: But what about some of the other people out there? As important as this move is in terms of recognizing the contributions of women and African-Americans, isn’t there still more that could be done?
O’Malley: It’s one thing you can do. I think you could have a didactic message. In a roundtable that I was at this summer, Secretary Lew pointed out that there’s a lot of real estate on the back of the bill and most people don’t know what’s on there. You could have a little mural or almost a graphic novel representation of American history. Now that they’re used for static symbolism, they could be used for educational purposes.
Larson: Well, that’s the point. No one really looks at the back of the bill, so while it’s great real estate for more people, more information to be placed on them, the point is the front of the bill is what everyone looks at and Harriet Tubman is a fabulous choice. I think women should be on half of our currency and not just on the back. I think this is an opportunity to change more of our currency than just the $20 bill.
“Women should be on half of our currency and not just on the back. I think this is an opportunity to change more of our currency than just the $20 bill.” –Kate Clifford Larson
[email protected]: A lot of us know a little of the story of Harriet Tubman, but a lot of people don’t remember the fact that she was a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Larson: That’s right. She was hired by Union officers to spy behind enemy lines in South Carolina. She was very effective and was paid for her services. She was paid not fully for all the work she did, but she did get paid by the government for that work. She tried to get recognition for it later in her life to get a veteran’s pension. Eventually, the government gave her a pension as a Civil War nurse but not for her service as a soldier and a spy.
[email protected]: There are a variety of places that recognize Tubman’s contributions, but there is not enough recognition of how the work she did could have changed the path of what happened in the Civil War.
O’Malley: I’m not an expert specifically on Tubman. I think she is a ferociously courageous and important figure, a really remarkable person and, in that sense, eminently deserves to be there. My biggest concern is that she’s kind of been reduced to a soothing figure for second-graders. Just as it’s hard to confront some of the actions that Andrew Jackson took, it’s relatively hard to confront the reality of the Trail of Tears. It’s hard to confront the reality of slavery and the degree to which escaping from slavery was so difficult and so unlikely for most people. If I had to criticize the choice of Tubman, it would be that it’s too easy to reduce her to a safe figure.
Larson: I think Michael has a point about how for the past half-century, she had been reduced through children’s literature to this much smaller figure, and the issue of slavery and the pursuit of freedom had been sort of sanitized. But I think in the past 15 years, that has changed a lot. For those of us who have been trying to champion Tubman’s real life story, things have begun to change. Now we have two national parks in her honor that will be telling the truth of her life and addressing the issues of slavery and the enslavement that she endured, and the new biographies that have come out in the past 10 years have certainly answered a lot of those questions and changed that narrative that you find in the children’s books.
There’s a state park in Maryland and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, so things are changing now with Tubman on the $20. I hope that over the next couple of years, when people Google her, a lot of that juvenile stuff and the myths will fade away and the true life story of Tubman will pop up and spark conversation about slavery and the legacy of slavery. How the legacy of this woman Harriet Tubman has brought us to this point where she now will grace the $20 give us this opportunity to continue a conversation that is not complete.
[email protected]: There are other people that have had such an amazing impact on this country. Maybe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is somebody that should be considered as well.
O’Malley: Oh sure, there are lots of people you could put. I think you could make an argument that the money supply should vary more frequently. You could argue the strength of the United States is the diverse, creative, generative power of its people, and we could have a variety of figures from different realms of life. Some countries adopt that. They have cultural figures, inventors, engineers, politicians, a variety of people. You could argue that we should take that kind of approach.
Tubman is a great choice to reinforce the point that African-Americans were vital in their own liberation. The common tendency, which you see in movies like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, reinforces the idea that freedom was something that white people gave to black people. There are many well-intentioned white people who worked hard to end slavery, but black people were the primary drivers of their own liberation, and I think Tubman’s image helps to reinforce that.
“Harriet Tubman is a great choice to reinforce the point that African-Americans were vital in their own liberation.” –Michael O’Malley
[email protected]: Changes to other bills are being made as well, including the addition of prominent suffragist leaders on the back of the $10 and Civil Rights leaders on the back of the $5. It