What to know about abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman and the effort to get her on the $20 bill

The Biden administration is speeding up the effort to feature a new face on the $20 bill: abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman.

Tubman escaped slavery using the Underground Railroad in 1849 and later became a "conductor" who helped free dozens of other enslaved people. She would later become known as the "Moses of her people."

President Barack Obama announced in 2016 that Tubman would appear on the $20 bill by 2020, but that move was delayed under President Donald Trump.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was "exploring ways to speed up that effort,” and that it’s important the nation’s currency “reflect the history and diversity of our country.”

Latest development: Biden accelerating move to put Harriet Tubman on $20 bill

Here's what you need to know about Tubman and the effort to get her on the $20 bill.

Who was Harriet Tubman?

Tubman was born Araminta "Minty" Ross in the early 1820s in Dorchester County, Maryland. She was enslaved at a young age and began working the field harvesting flax at age 13.

Harriet Tubman, 1868 or 1869, taken by Benjamin Powelson.
Harriet Tubman, 1868 or 1869, taken by Benjamin Powelson.

She escaped when she was around 27 years old, and she returned to Maryland about 13 times to rescue as many as 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes and safe houses organized by Black and white abolitionists. Abolitionists were those who sought to abolish the institution of slavery, through petitions, boycotts, speeches, literature and some advocated violent means.

Tubman claimed she never lost a passenger.

If she had been caught, she would've faced physical punishment and been sold back into slavery in the Deep South due to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

Fact check: Harriet Tubman helped free slaves for the underground railroad, but not 300

The woman who owned her, Eliza Brodess, posted a $100 bounty (a little over $3,300 today) for her and her brothers "Ben" and "Harry" on Oct. 3, 1849. After she escaped, Tubman walked the nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she took jobs as a domestic and cook and spent summers working in Cape May, New Jersey.

She gave instructions to 70 others who found their own way to freedom, wrote Kate Clifford Larson, author of "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero," in the Washington Post.

During the Civil War, Tubman also worked for the Union Army as "a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse," according to the National Women's History Museum, making her one of the first Black women to serve in the military.

After the war, Tubman became involved in the campaign for women's suffrage along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, according to the National Parks Service.

She purchased a home in Auburn, New York, in 1859 and established a home for the elderly. She died there in 1913 and was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery.

For all the latest news on race and identity: Sign up for USA TODAY’s This Is America newsletter

Why is Harriet Tubman going on the $20 bill?

Obama launched the effort to get Tubman on the $20 bill in 2014 after receiving a letter from a girl from Massachusetts saying women should appear on currency. Obama called it "a pretty good idea."

His Treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, asked for public comment about who should be added. In April 2016, Obama announced that Tubman would be replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 and that Jackson would be moved into a scene of the White House on the reverse side.

Jackson, the nation's seventh president, owned 95 enslaved people months before he became president, and brought 14 of them to the White House.

For years, critics have called for Jackson to be removed from the $20 bill because of his legacy of supporting the institution of slavery and his role in the forced, violent transfer of tens of thousands of Native Americans from the South on what became known as the Trail of Tears.

How do you market an icon? Harriet Tubman debit card from OneUnited raises the question

Why was the Harriet Tubman $20 bill delayed?

The new design was initially scheduled for 2020, but stalled under President Trump, who called the move "pure political correctness," and said at the time that Jackson "had a great history.” He suggested Tubman could be put on the $2 bill instead.

In 2019, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the department needed to focus first on adding anti-counterfeiting steps and "security features." He told Congress that changes to the images on currency would not occur until 2026.

The currency process, explained: Should the Harriet Tubman $20 bill be delayed?

From 2019: Treasury watchdog to review delay of Harriet Tubman $20 bill design

Trump's critics saw Mnuchin’s move as part of what they said was Trump’s affinity toward Andrew Jackson.

Trump has long alluded to Jackson as one of his favorite presidents and selected a painting of Jackson to be displayed in the Oval Office, which Biden recently removed. During a visit to Tennessee in 2017, Trump toured the Hermitage, laid a wreath at Jackson's tomb and called him the "people's president."

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat who co-chaired the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, called it a “basic pattern of bias and hate" of the Trump administration.

News of the delay sparked the release of a debit card that bears her image and drew attention to an ink stamp that replaced Andrew Jackson's face on a $20 bill with Tubman's likeness.

Who ends up on bills?

The last time a portrait on a bill was changed was in 1929, when Alexander Hamilton was placed on the front of the $10 bill, replacing Jackson. Jackson was elevated to the $20 bill in 1928, replacing Grover Cleveland.

By law, no living person can be on a bill, and the secretary of the Treasury is given the authority over the design of bills, which includes the portrait. The only portrait the secretary is legally required to print on a bill is George Washington, on the $1 bill.

No women or people of color have ever been pictured on a denomination of currency still in circulation, though $1 coins have previously been issued featuring Susan B. Anthony, a pioneer of the women's suffrage movement, and Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition across the Louisiana Territory.

Contributing: Miriam Fauzia, Nicholas Wu, Ledyard King, Deborah Barfield Berry, Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Harriet Tubman on $20 bill: What to know about the abolitionist hero