Biden administration revives effort to put Harriet Tubman on $20 bill
The $20 bill is getting a new — but familiar — face.
The Biden administration will resume the process to add famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman to the note, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during her Monday news briefing. A Treasury Department spokesperson confirmed the change.
Tubman will become the first Black person on the face of American paper currency and the first woman in generations; Martha Washington appeared on a $1 bill in the 1890s, and Pocahontas was in a group picture on the $20 bill in the 1860s, according to Reuters.
It’s not clear whether Tubman would replace or join President Andrew Jackson on the bill. The White House declined to comment further on the plans.
“The Treasury Department is taking steps to resume efforts to put Harriet Tubman on the front of the new $20 notes,” Psaki said. “It’s important that our notes … reflect the history and diversity of our country, and Harriet Tubman’s image gracing the new $20 note would certainly reflect that. So we’re exploring ways to speed up that effort.”
Derrick Johnson, chief executive and president of the NAACP, said in a statement: “Harriet Tubman lived at a time when Congress, the Supreme Court and our nation was abhorrently paralyzed over whether it was legal to allow one person to own another. In a true act of liberty and independence, Tubman freed herself from slavery, only to return south 19 more times, risking her own life and freedom, to save her family and hundreds of others from a life spent in slavery.
“The legacy of Harriet Tubman and other Black Americans who built the nation we know today must be recognized and celebrated in our schools, culture and currency. The NAACP applauds the Biden administration’s announcement to change the design of the $20 bill to commemorate the full story of the significant figures in our history.”
The Obama administration announced plans to put Tubman on the bill in 2016, after she was chosen from among several women in an informal nationwide poll. President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin scuttled those plans in 2019.
Trump was a known fan of Jackson, an enslaver whom historians also widely consider responsible for the forced displacement and death of thousands of American Indians, and displayed a bust of him in the Oval Office.
“Andrew Jackson had a great history,” Trump said in 2019, “and I think it’s very rough when you take somebody off the bill.”
He described the decision to include Tubman on the note as “pure political correctness” and suggested she instead appear on the largely ceremonial $2 bill.
Whether she’s on the $20 bill or not, Harriet Tubman made men pay for underestimating her
Mnuchin in 2019 pushed back the release of the new $20 bill six years and said it might not include Tubman at all, even though a design of the note and a metal casting for printing was developed in 2018, according to a New York Times report.
A spokesperson said the Treasury Department does not yet have a timeline for when the bills will enter into circulation. Designing and releasing new currency is a lengthy process that includes considerations for counterfeit protection and ensuring compliance with note-processing machines at locations such as banks and grocery stores.
Tubman was originally slated to appear on the $10 bill, replacing Alexander Hamilton, one of only two non-presidents featured on American money. Benjamin Franklin appears on the $100 bill. But Hamilton was spared thanks in part to the popularity of the award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Tubman was moved to the $20 instead.
Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, announced later Monday that she’d reintroduce legislation requiring a woman to appear on $20 bills issued after 2024. She’d sponsored the Women on the Twenty Act in previous Congresses.
“For several years, I worked directly with the Department of Treasury to plan the release of the new $20 design featuring Harriet Tubman to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” Beatty said in a statement. “The American people want our currency to better reflect the diversity of our great country. I look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration, including the first-ever female Secretary of Treasury, Janet Yellen, to put a woman on the 20 and make the Tubman Twenty a reality.”
Tubman was born enslaved in 1822 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She escaped bondage to Philadelphia in 1849 but returned to rescue her relatives, then more enslaved people, all while battling chronic effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered as a child at the hands of a violent overseer. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed bounty hunters to apprehend enslaved people in free states, Tubman led escaped individuals to freedom in Canada.
Known as the “Moses” of the Underground Railroad, she was said to never have lost a “passenger.” During the Civil War, she worked for the Union army as a scout and spy.
She died of pneumonia in Auburn, N.Y., in 1913 after devoting much of her latter years as a women’s suffrage activist.