Fight For Harriet Tubman $20 Bill Falters But Won't Fail

The push to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill has faltered, but the fight continues. On May 22, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated that the Treasury Department would not address the issue until 2026, with the earliest implementation planned for 2028.

During questioning on Capitol Hill by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Mnuchin announced new security features will delay the redesign of the $20 bill. He cited security concerns and counterfeiting as possible reasons for the delay. He also suggested that security redesigns for the $10 and the $50 superseded similar work on the $20 bill. “The ultimate decision of the redesign will most likely be another secretary’s down the road,” Mnuchin said.

President Donald Trump strongly criticized the proposal and argued that Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill was the ultimate example of “pure political correctness” as a presidential candidate. He suggested that Tubman be placed on the $2 bill. Mnuchin also indicated in 2017, that the implementation of the currency redesign to place Tubman on the $20 bill was not a high priority for the president.

Proponents argue that Harriet Tubman’s many contributions to the national life warrant her placement on the $20 bill. She escaped enslavement, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad where she helped to free countless people, and was a spy and nurse the Union Army. Others have suggested that her inclusion would be a welcomed addition to the US paper currency, which exclusively features white men and no women.

In April 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that Alexander Hamilton would be replaced with the image of Harriet Tubman on the $10 bill as a means of providing long overdue recognition to women in American history. At the time, the Treasury Department said that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing would work closely with the Federal Reserve to bring a Tubman bill into circulation by 2020. Its appearance would coincide with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

President Trump voiced opposition to the Obama administration’s currency plan as a candidate and as president. Aware of how this type of opposition might postpone or even delay the proposed changes, Congress took action and introduced The Harriet Tubman Tribute Act in September 2017 although the bill died in committee.

A group of bipartisan legislators reintroduced the legislation in February and it is currently before the House Financial Services Committee. Legislators Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), stressed the fact that Tubman’s presence on the $20 bill was more appropriate than that of its current occupant, Andrew Jackson. Tubman’s work to free the enslaved was more consistent with the constitutional values of the nation. Jackson, an enslaver and the mastermind behind the Trail of Tears, forced the relocation of thousands of Native Americans — notably the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw) from the eastern seaboard to the territories west of the Mississippi. These actions led to countless deaths and the dispossession of Native people.

The decision to place Tubman on the $20 bill is not without precedent and had broad support. Following the smash Broadway musical Hamilton and a viral campaign called Women on 20s, the Tubman redesign was shifted to the $20 bill. More than 600,000 voters nominated Tubman as a replacement for Andrew Jackson. In response, the Treasury Department came up with the alternative 2017 plan.

Hamilton remains on the $10 bill, but it seems likely that Tubman will make a permanent appearance on the nation’s currency. If not now, then certainly after 2026.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.