Harriet Tubman survived a brutal life of slavery and savagery to become a Union spy and abolitionist. Called a female Moses, she risked everything to lead black people to freedom in the north and then to Canada through the Underground Railroad. She conducted dangerous missions to help desperate people who had been enslaved, including her relatives and other families about to be sold and broken apart.
This brave, big-hearted woman sized up the odds and chose to defy them, carrying on with courage and purpose. At turns a nurse, a spy and a scout, she was an angel of mercy to terrified men, women and children she shepherded to safety. She embodied the spirit that we as a nation should harbor: If all of us are not free, then none of us are free.
How demeaning, then, that when shown an image of Tubman, Trump supposedly said: “You want me to put that face on the $20 bill?”
Yes, that face is the one that so many Americans want to honor on our currency, because her steely and defiant gaze is one we should respect. At a time when America morally lost its way, Tubman found her way in the dark of night for the sake of others. Her life stood for something because she truly believed that her own freedom would not suffice — she wanted freedom for all.
That’s about as American and as democratic as one can get.
The only thing standing in the way of this enormously symbolic and fitting tribute is a tone-deaf President Trump and his stonewalling Treasury Department.
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What could possibly be the holdup? Americans should want to replace President Andrew Jackson, a former slave owner, with the picture of a woman who was just the opposite: A person who escaped slavery and a civil rights hero who truly stood for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’’
Yet President Trump has tweeted his support of Jackson in a meme reading, “We thank you for your service. We honor your memory. We build on your legacy.’’ Our president should be tweeting that instead about Harriet Tubman.
President Jackson, by comparison, was a staunch proponent of slavery, owned as many as 161 enslaved people, and used them to move himself from a life of poverty to a position of great wealth and social influence. Known for his vivid language and brash, abrasive communication patterns, Jackson even went as far as defying a Supreme Court decision to sign the Indian Removal Act into law on May 28, 1830.
He could rise above the racism that is rearing its ugly head in society today, and learn from the lessons of our painful, ugly past. There could be no better time than the present for Tubman to be prominently displayed on our currency; she could serve as a beacon of hope and healing, much as she was before the Civil War.
Still, this battle isn’t just about Tubman: The plan that the president and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been slow-walking would have honored all women by putting other prominent American heroines on our money in addition to Tubman.
Tubman was originally slated to be on the $10 bill to replace former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. But the smash hit Broadway musical "Hamilton," coupled with an online public campaign against the change, put an end to that plan. From it, though, emerged an even better plan.
A group called Women on 20s said Hamilton should stay on the $10 bill — but they mobilized 600,000 voters to nominate Tubman for the $20 bill. The hope had been to have it in circulation by 2020, which is also the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote.
And in a further response, Obama-era Treasury officials called for a redesign of the reverse side of the $10 bill to feature a group of leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Yet the design process seems to be stuck; no official designs have been approved by Mnuchin's office, a necessary step before the currency can go into circulation. I have to ask, if Tubman were a white abolitionist, would things be taking so long?
Our money is neither black nor white; it’s green. Printed on sheets of paper, it has no value other than what we assign it. So let us unite in assigning the $20 bill a symbolically higher value — one that represents that to which we want our nation to aspire, which is a country that values women and, yes, enslaved people once denied freedom.
President Trump should show the country that he is committed to healing the wounds of racism that have afflicted our great country for far too long by proudly putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Let us all honor her and the other enslaved people who helped build this country with their blood, sweat and tears.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2018 3:53 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article contained a paragraph that misidentified the president who offered amnesty to the Confederates and opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments. It was President Andrew Johnson, not Andrew Jackson. The paragraph has been removed.
CORRECTION (March 19, 2018 10:42 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the year that President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. It was 1830, not 1930.