Letters to the Editor

Harriet Tubman’s new place on the paper money roster

By Myron B. Pitts

The faces on money don’t change a whole lot.

So I was excited when Twitter broke the news that we’d be getting a new face: Harriet Tubman, runner of the Underground Railroad and now 150 years later, replacer of seventh president Andrew Jackson on the the face of the $20 bill.

The U.S. Treasury Department has been looking to honor a woman, and last year had settled on taking Alexander Hamilton off the $10 bill.

But you may know the story of what has happened since. The first treasury secretary was saved by the renewed attention his life and legacy has received in the wake of the hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” The show’s creator, lead actor and director personally lobbied Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to keep Hamilton on the $10.

Anyone wanting to start a musical named, “Jackson” – well, you’re too late.

Previous attempts to put women on currency have come up short because they required people to get used to new kinds of money. And we don’t tend to do that. We like the same old denominations we’ve been using since treasury began rolling them out in the early 1900s, and we'll probably stick with them until paper and coins are phased out altogether.

So the octagonal Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was a dud, except with collectors. And the gold-colored Sacagawea dollar met a similar fate.

From the time the feds announced they wanted to put a woman on paper money, Tubman has led in polls and in voting.

I think the reason is because when people think Tubman they think freedom. She is famous for helping enslaved blacks escape from the South to the North, at great personal risk to herself and others who helped.

Many of our country’s foremost heroes from the founders through Martin Luther King Jr. were mixed up in the notion of freedom, in one form or the other. We just like that whole idea.

I talked on Wednesday to someone who was no doubt more excited than most about Tubman’s latest honor: Ellen Mousin, director of the annual Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference, set for June in Cambridge, Maryland.

The conference draws 150 to 200 attendees and has been around for seven years, says Mousin. Some people associated with it have been involved in what she says is a four-year effort to get Tubman on currency.

“What we don’t understand is that, not only was she brave, but in her later life she was a humanitarian,” Mousin says.

“During the Civil War, she was a spy, she was a nurse, she fed the soldiers – she did what everybody needed to be done. She encompassed so many people’s lives and put it all into one package.”

The honors for Tubman aren’t ending. National parks in her honor have been designated for Maryland’s eastern shore and Auburn, New York, two places she lived, says Mousin.

The Tubman $20 bill will be introduced in 2020 and won’t start circulating until 10 years after that.

Says Mousin, “My worry is that it will be a long time before she really gets on that bill.”

Pitts is a columnist for the Fayettvilel (N.C.) Observer. He can be reached at pittsm@fayobserver.com.