The $20 question: Will Harriet Tubman's image grace currency by 2030?
If you had put $20 down in 2020 that Harriet Tubman's face would be on a $20 bill in 10 years, the odds would be 50-50.
While the government has publicly committed to the legendary abolitionist, Civil War spy and suffragist appearing on the $20 bill, the extensive process it takes for that to happen and future political changes in the White House may make a not-sure bet.
However, women are making gains in being featured on currency, and if the Tubman bill is indeed released, she will join a growing list of trailblazers.
Tubman is scheduled to grace the front of the American currency in 2030. The bill has long had the face of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president. Andrew was a military man who led campaigns against Native Americans and was a slaveholder, yet he was held in high regard by admirers for his support of the common man.
The U.S. Treasury confirmed in comments last year to The Grio that different dollar bills have a unique release date after a design change: $10 (2026); $5 (2028); $20 (2030) and $50 (2032).
The year 2030 is a “soft date” that could be subject to change based on various factors, said Barbara Ortiz Howard. Howard is one of the founders of Women on 20s, a nonprofit group that led the movement to get Tubman on the $20 bill.
“There are a number of groups and people that are urging [the Biden administration] not to lose the moment because a lot can happen in seven years,” Howard said. “We just should make this part of our history to have a women’s portrait, Harriet Tubman’s portrait on our currency, ASAP.”
Tubman would join a growing list of famous women on currency. Starting last year and continuing until 2025, the back of quarters are being etched with trailblazers that include pioneering Black aviator Bessie Coleman and Native American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief.
There are also signatures on the current U.S. dollar belonging to women for the first time in history with those of Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen and U.S. Treasurer Lynn Malerba.
The efforts to display prominent women on denominations is reversing years of absence. Yet, it has not come without backlash from some resisting change.
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Who was first woman of color on $20?
Harriet Tubman as the future face of the $20 bill is a unique distinction. She would be the first Black woman whose image will be printed on the front or obverse of a dollar bill.
This after images of white men have been the public face of various bills for hundreds of years. The first president, George Washington, has been on currency ($1) the longest, going back to 1869. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant ($50), Alexander Hamilton ($10) and Abraham Lincoln ($5) all appeared in 1914. Andrew Jackson has been on the $20 bill since 1928.
However, Tubman is not the first woman to be featured on paper currency.
Around the end of the Civil War, another woman of color appeared on back of the $20 bill (then known as $20 First Charter Period National Banknotes) — Native American icon Pocahontas. In 1886, first lady Martha Washington was placed on the one-dollar silver certificate. There have also been allegorical images of women on paper currency.
And over the years, women have appeared on U.S. coins including suffragist Susan B. Anthony and Native American field explorer Sacagawea (one-dollar coin), and disability activist Helen Keller (quarter).
In 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman would be the face of the $20 note after a year of feedback from the public suggesting hundreds of names of female figures.
“We anticipate that final concept designs for the new $20, $10, and $5 notes will all be unveiled in 2020 in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote,” Lew said in an open letter.
But while there were hopes from some that people that year would be carrying a crisp 20 spot in their wallets with Tubman’s portrait, the process for that happening is more complicated.
First, the design of the bill is done in collaboration with several federal agencies. It then goes on to final approval by the secretary of the Treasury. Next, there is an annual order for currency based on public demand and other factors. Production of the bills comes after an order is received. That’s followed by the issuing of the bills after printing. Lastly, circulation of the bills.
Also, time is spent researching and implementing security features, which, in turn, lengthens production time.
Howard is skeptical that the wait is due to protecting currency against counterfeiting but believes there’s resistance to adding a tactile feature to bills for accessibility for the blind.
“We don’t need time; we need desire and intention and the will. And I think that is what is lacking in the government,” Howard lamented. “It should be a very high priority.”
A Treasury Department official, in response to an inquiry for this article, referred to comments made by Yellen in an interview last year with the Washington Post. Yellen said she felt confident the Tubman bill will be a reality in 2030 as it "adheres to the original schedule that was announced in 2014 by Secretary Lew and President Obama." Yellen added: "We lost four years during the Trump administration and pushing it forward, but we have made efforts to catch up and we remain on that schedule." (Former President Donald Trump is among ardent Andrew Jackson admirers.)
Clarence Lusane is an advocate for Tubman to be on the $20 bill. Lusane is the author of the new book “Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy.” He said he was optimistic that everything is on schedule for Tubman to appear on the $20 even if there’s change in the political party in the White House between now and 2030.
“Now, if a Republican or Trump becomes president, then things could be up in the air, but that would be an extreme situation because the work that the Treasury has been doing seven, almost 10 years would have to be turned around,” said Lusane, a professor at Howard University.
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Choice of Tubman does not make sense to some
Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill has not excited everyone.
Among the criticisms is that putting her image on paper currency goes against everything she stood for.
Rutgers University Professor Brittney Cooper, in a 2021 Time Magazine essay, called it a “supreme form of disrespect.”
“The imagery of her face changing hands as people exchange cash for goods and services evokes for me discomfiting scenes of enslaved persons being handed over as payment for white debt or for anything white slaveholders wanted. America certainly owes a debt to Black people, but this is not the way to repay it,” Cooper wrote.
New York-based writer and activist Sade Green wrote in a 2021 piece for Elle Magazine that instead of putting Tubman on the $20 bill, Black people should be paid reparations for slavery.
Green, in an interview with the USA TODAY Network, said she has not changed her stance since the piece was published. She said if she had her way the redesign would not have any person on it.
"I really think that maybe we should start using symbols or animals or some other type of image that's not a human being. I think a symbol that symbolizes freedom and democracy."
Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Women's History Month 2023: Status, timeline of Harriet Tubman $20