An Obama-era plan to feature Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is crumbling.
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the 2020 unveiling of the note, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of a Constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote, has been canceled.
He pushed back the redesign of the $20 bill at least nine years, offering no guarantees that it will bear the likeness of the celebrated abolitionist.
“The primary reason we have looked at redesigning the currency is for counterfeiting issues,” Mnuchin said in response to questions by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. “Based upon this, the $20 bill will now not come out until 2028. The $10 bill and the $50 bill will come out with new features beforehand.”
Pressley said it is time for America to better reflect who built it.
“People other than white men built this county. And Secretary Mnuchin agrees, yet he refuses to update our currency,” she said in a tweet. “Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt are iconic Americans and it’s past time that our money reflects that.”
Andy Ambrose, executive director of the Tubman Museum in Macon, called the decision “unfortunate” and noted that Tubman was long denied a military pension before Congress approved a $20 monthly payment.
“Harriet Tubman deserves this national recognition that has been long delayed, as she is one of the most courageous, inspiring women in American history,” he said. “But this is part and parcel of the history of this country and the way in which African American women have been, and continue to be, treated and unacknowledged.”
Susan Ades Stone, the executive director of the organization that initially proposed putting Tubman on the $20 bill, said Mnuchin’s punt is a calculated political move directed by President Trump. She called for Congress to intervene.
“We’re not surprised that Secretary Mnuchin may be kicking the design reveal of the $20 bill to sometime beyond the potential interference of a Trump presidency,” Stone said. “The Tubman $20 design was supposed to be unveiled by 2020 and, even under the most optimistic timetable set out by the Obama administration, was never expected to be in our hands before 2026.”
It was in the waning days of the Obama Administration that then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the redesigned bills.
Stone’s group, Women on 20s, had submitted a petition to the White House in 2015, urging President Obama to consider replacing Jackson on the $20 bill with the image of the former slave.
Women on 20s also had considered Rosa Parks, who sparked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.
The initial plan was to replace the image of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill as part of the Treasury’s redesign of bills to make them harder to counterfeit.
That thinking began to change, in part because of the Broadway smash “Hamilton.” With the play’s success, the profile of Hamilton, the country’s first treasury secretary, began to climb.
The focus then shifted to the $20 bill.
Tubman would have been the first African American on U.S. currency and only the second woman. Martha Washington appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and on the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896, according to the U.S. Mint.
Known as Moses, Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland then spent a large part of her life returning to the South as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a secret network that helped fugitive slaves get to free states.
Tubman rescued approximately 70 people on more than 13 trips back to Maryland, according to Kate Clifford Larson’s 2003 biography, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.”
It has been nearly a century since one of the faces on U.S. paper currency has changed.
In 1928 — for reasons that remain unclear — Grover Cleveland was replaced on the $20 bill by Jackson, America’s seventh president.
Ironically, Jackson opposed the use of paper currency. Those who wanted to see him replaced pointed out that he owned hundreds of slaves who worked his Hermitage plantation in Nashville.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized Jackson to grant unsettled land west of the Mississippi River to southern tribes who agreed to give up their ancestral homelands. The mass removal of the Cherokee tribe to Oklahoma became known as the Trail of Tears.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump praised Jackson, whom he considers a hero and is said to have modeled his populist administration after.
A portrait of Jackson hangs in the Oval Office, and Trump placed a wreath on his tomb to mark Jackson’s 250th birthday in 2018.
He has said that the decision to put Tubman on the currency was “pure political correctness” and proposed putting her portrait on the $2 bill, which has the lowest circulation volume of any bill.
Stone rejects that idea.
“Now it is up to Congress to act on the Harriet Tubman Tribute Bill that is presently before the House Financial Services Committee, to compel the Treasury Department to accelerate the timetable and at the very least show us a Tubman bill design in time for the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020,” Stone said. “As we’ve been saying for years, symbols do matter.”
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