Canada enshrines civil rights hero on $10 bill; where’s the Tubman 20?

The Canadian $10 bill honoring Viola Desmond. (Bank of Canada)

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The Canadian $10 bill honoring Viola Desmond. (Bank of Canada)

Canada last week unveiled a new $10 bill bearing the image of Viola Desmond, an African-Canadian woman who was jailed after she refused to move out of the “whites only” section of a movie theater 71 years ago.

South of the border, Americans started asking whatever happened to the proposal to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. That was an initiative of the Obama administration, and it seems to have gone away when the Obama administration did.

Responses by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin regarding the Tubman 20 have ranged from negative to noncommittal.

In response to a question from the AJC, Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Meiners replied that Mnuchin “was asked about this at the Washington Ecomomic Club earlier this year,” and she pasted a transcript of the exchange. This apparently referred to an appearance by Mnuchin on Jan. 12.

Mnuchin first seemed to dodge the question, talking at some length about security features in U.S. currency, so his questioner tried again:

MR. RUBENSTEIN: OK. But on the question of whether you would still have Harriet Tubman or things —

SEC. MNUCHIN: We haven't made any decisions as to whether we'll change the bill, or we won't change the bill in terms of that. But, again, our – the money has been a – the money has been a certain way for a long period of time. And we'll look at whether we change it or not.

Evidently Mnuchin’s thinking since then hasn’t changed, so it appears that the Tubman bill is off the table for now.

Canadians last week celebrated the new Viola Desmond ten, which goes into circulation next year. It is the first regularly circulated bill to feature an African-Canadian, as well as the first in a vertical format, the government said.

While traveling through New Glasgow,  Nova Scotia, in 1946, Desmond's car broke down. While it was being repaired she decided to see a movie to kill some time, according to an account in the Guardian.

Like Southern theaters of the day, the New Glasgow theater was segregated, with whites on the main floor and blacks in the balcony. But Desmond was near-sighted and asked for a ticket on the main floor. When she was turned down, she took a seat in the whites-only section anyway. According to the Toronto Star,  she was arrested, jailed for 12 hours and fined.

The Star quoted a Dalhousie University instructor as saying that Desmond was a great choice for the currency honor.

“Viola Desmond carried out a singular act of courage,” Isaac Saney said. “There was no movement behind her, she was ahead of the times.”

Canadians are quick to point out that Desmond’s act of protest occurred nearly a decade before Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to move to the back of a city bus.

Saney told the Star, "We know more about Rosa Parks than Viola Desmond. We know more about Martin Luther King than perhaps we know about W.P. Oliver." This was a reference to  Dr. William Pearly Oliver, a social justice and education advocate in the 20th century.