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After the US Mint announced the shipping of quarters featuring the legendary poet Maya Angelou, many around the nation are wondering when the government will finally keep its word regarding Harriet Tubman.
As far back as 2014, an 11 year-old girl wrote a letter to then-president Barack Obama, asking for the government to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman.
Officials eventually took note of the poetic justice of replacing Andrew Jackson, a disgraced 19th century president who owned enslaved Africans and who forced thousands of Native Americans to their deaths on the Trail of Tears. Harriet Tubman was more than just a conductor of the underground railroad who freed enslaved Africans after being born into slavery herself.
An abolitionist, military spy, leader
Tubman was also a nurse, cook and spy working for the Union army during the Civil War, according to a report from the Smithsonian Magazine. Her experience freeing 70 enslaved Black people across the South aided in her efforts to help the Union soldiers overrun Confederate military encampments and plantations.
In 2016, then-president Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced plans to honor Harriet Tubman by making her the first Black woman to appear on U.S. currency.
Yet, with the election of then-President Trump that same year, the decision was stalled. Notably, Trump considered Andrew Jackson one of his most influential role models.
Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin refused to even consider the proposal, saying at the time, “right now, we’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.”
Mnuchin instead proposed placing abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the rarely used $2 bill, while Trump installed a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the White House.
While Biden removed the portrait when he became president in 2020, there’s been little action on addressing the proposal. The inaction comes even after a survey from 2016 showed 56 percent of Americans support placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. For her part, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has told reporters Biden’s administration is “taking steps” to resume the effort, according to the AP.
It could take at least nine more years
Yet, the problem with immediately making the change lies in the fact that redesigning cash takes longer than redesigning coins.
For instance, the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee is in charge of decisions to redesign dollar currencies. In 2013 they decided the $20 would undergo changes to ensure protections against counterfeiting attempts.
It involves a drawn out process that includes adding new security features. According to the committee, the $10 bill is set to be redesigned in 2026, with the $50 being slated for change in 2028. The redesign for the $20 bill won’t take place until 2030 at the earliest.
Disappointed in the delay, the descendants of Harriet Tubman are worried their elders won’t live to see their ancestor officially honored.
“Our family has three nonagenarians — Women in their 90’s,” Michele Jones Galvin, a descendant of Tubman who authored a biography about the iconic abolitionist, told Spectrum News. “When this was talked about right out of the gate in the Biden Administration, they thought it would happen in their lifetime. We are hoping that is done.”
Aside from freeing human beings from captivity and aiding Union soldiers in tactical decisions, Harriet Tubman also became the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military assault. In what became known as the Combahee Ferry Raid, Tubman helped free over 700 enslaved Black people in South Carolina.