Back in 2016, President Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced the proposal to replace former President Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, which would make her the first African American woman to appear on U.S. currency.
The idea to replace Andrew Jackson, who had owned slaves and caused the forced removal of Native Americans through the Indian Removal Act, came from an 11-year-old girl who wrote a letter to President Obama in 2014.
The inclusion of Harriet Tubman on U.S. currency would honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Congressman John Katko, R-N.Y., later introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, which would require the Treasury Department to put Tubman on the $20 bill by 2020. The congressman stated, “We don’t have a woman of color, we don’t have any person of color on any U.S. currency. It should not even be an issue, in my mind.”
The plan was halted by President Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said as far as he was concerned, Jackson would remain on the $20 bill. President Trump suggested that Tubman be put on the $2 bill instead, and even installed a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, which would later be removed by President Biden.
On the issue of controversy, Lisa Page, the interim Director of Africana Studies at George Washington University, said, “I think Americans are still ashamed of the legacy of slavery and will continue to be ashamed of slavery. She [Harriet] was called Moses for all of her work in abolition, she was a spy for the Union army, she did all kinds of things to liberate Blacks in America.”
President Biden promised to accelerate the plan to replace Jackson on the $20 bill, and Representatives Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and John Katko, R-N.Y., put forth a letter to the Biden administration asking for an accelerated timeline on the issue, but nothing has developed further. The slow process has been particularly frustrating given that Biden was largely supported by women and people of color in his effort to become president.
The process, however, is more difficult than may be initially perceived by the public, as new currency has to be outfitted with world-class anti-counterfeit traits. Additionally, the American Council of the Blind successfully sued the Treasury Department in 2002, demanding that the department includes a tactile signifier, similar to Braille, for the blind and visually impaired. A federal judge agreed, and the decision was made to include such an element in the next revision of the U.S. currency.
The deadline for a new $20 bill is still 2030, which was put in place by an anti-counterfeit committee in 2013, and does not reflect the sense of urgency felt by Tubman’s family.
Tubman’s descendants have recently spoken about their disappointment, expressing their worry that three members of the family, who are in their 90s, will not live to see Tubman honored on the U.S. currency. Nonetheless, they have the support of many people inside and outside of politics, and remain hopeful that the issue will continue to garner the support needed to expedite the process and honor one of America’s greatest heroes.
By Ryan Bittan