The following is an adapted excerpt from Sharon Ann Murphy’s Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic.
The decision to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on future $20 bills is laced with irony. Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman was someone’s property, valued in dollars and cents, until she escaped to Philadelphia around 1849. She repeatedly placed her fragile freedom at risk, returning to the South to aid family, friends, and even strangers in escaping their fate as slaves, serving as a vital conductor of the Underground Railroad. As prominent slave historian Joshua Rothman opines, “To put Harriet Tubman on our currency is to refute the very idea that she ought ever to have been property. It is to affirm her position as a free woman and a citizen. And it is to allow her penetrating gaze to remind us every day of our nation’s sins and its promise alike.”
But beyond the rejection of her status as property, the $20 bill had significant meaning for Tubman at two different points in her life. In the 1869 biography of the former slave and abolitionist, Sarah H. Bradford related the story of the time when Tubman feared for the safety of her still-enslaved parents. Needing money for a trip south to save them, “she asked the Lord where she should go for the money” and found herself at the office of a prominent New York abolitionist. Her biographer continued:
When she left the house of her friends to go there, she said, “I’m gwine to Mr.——’s office, an’ I ain’t gwine to lebe there, an’ I ain’t gwine to eat or drink till I git enough money to take me down after the ole people.”
She went into this gentleman’s office.
“What do you want, Harriet?” was the first greeting. “I want some money, sir.”
“You do? How much do you want?”
“I want twenty dollars, sir.”
“Twenty dollars? Who told you to come here for twenty dollars?”
“De Lord tole me, sir.”
“Well, I guess the Lord’s mistaken this time.”
“I guess he isn’t, sir. Anyhow I’m gwine to sit here till I git it.”
So she sat down and went to sleep. All the morning and all the afternoon she sat there still, sleeping and rousing up—sometimes finding the office full of gentlemen—sometimes finding herself alone. Many fugitives were passing through New York at that time, and those who came in supposed that she was one of them, tired out and resting. Sometimes she would be roused up with the words, “Come, Harriet, you had better go. There’s no money for you here.” “No, sir. I’m not gwine till I git my twenty dollars.”
Falling into a deep sleep, she awoke to discover that the people coming into the office had secretly collected $60 for her. She used it “to bring her old parents from the land of bondage. She found that her father was to be tried the next Monday, for helping off slaves; so, as she says, she ‘removed his trial to a higher court,’ and hurried him off to Canada.”
When the Civil War broke out, Tubman continued her heroics, serving as both a nurse and a spy for the Union army while her husband fought in the 8th Infantry. After the war, the federal government repeatedly denied her requests to be compensated either as a war widow or for her own war service. In 1892, she was finally granted the standard widow pension of $8 a month, but her supporters believed that she deserved the full soldier’s pension of $25 a month. Congress finally passed a special bill recognizing her service in 1899, allotting her a pension “on account of special circumstances” of $20 a month until her death in 1913.
Harriet Tubman stubbornly waited to get the $20 to pay for her trip to save her parents. She waited even longer (thirty-four years!) to get her $20 war pension. Apparently, she will have to wait just a little bit longer to be on the $20 bill. While the new designs for all the bills are set to be unveiled in 2020 in honor of the 100th anniversary of Amendment XIX, granting women suffrage, it will take several more years before the new bills will go into circulation. In addition to adding new anti-counterfeiting measures to the bills, the treasury is also trying to make the bills more easily identifiable by the visually impaired—all of which takes time; a treasury spokesperson said it would be impossible to predict just how long. And who knows how a change in presidential administration will affect these decisions of the treasury; perhaps these proposed designs will never see the light of day. Of the suffragists on the back of the proposed redesigned $10 bill, only Alice Paul lived to see women voting. Of the civil rights leaders on the back of the proposed new $5 bill, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt died in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement. But each of these pioneers firmly believed that change eventually would come. Also slated to appear on the redesigned $5 bill is the renowned opera singer Marian Anderson, who confidently proclaimed in her 1956 autobiography, “I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country.”
Sharon Ann Murphy is a professor of history at Providence College. She is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America. Her latest book, Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic is available now.