Is Harriet Tubman’s 20 Dollar Bill Relevant?

Is Harriet Tubman’s 20 Dollar Bill Relevant?


Harriet Tubman

It has been confirmed that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the 20 dollar bill. Jackson will be moved to the back of the bill with a new focus on his military accomplishments. The choice of Tubman has been met with mixed reactions across the country. While some recognize this as an honor, others question the choice of Tubman in general. There are also those who see the irony of the juxtaposition between Jackson and Tubman’s legacies. Despite the debate, the real question is whether the freedom leader’s 20 dollar bill will be relevant in the future, especially when paper currency is becoming less relevant every day.

First, the obvious irony of the choice of Tubman to replace Jackson has gotten mixed responses. She was an escaped slave who helped other slaves escape through what became known as the “Underground Railroad,” while Jackson, America’s seventh president, was a slave owner who was found to have left a legacy of illegitimate children he fathered with his slaves.

Discussion and debate about the redesign of American currency have gone on for years now. Women’s rights advocates have fought to have a woman featured on U.S. currency for several years. Tubman was one of many women suggested. What bill to change was also under debate. The decisions were made by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Lew wanted to commemorate a woman on the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in 2020, which is leading to a redesign of all American currency.

The idea behind the U.S. currency redesign is to be more reflective of U.S. history and honor those who have shaped the current world. Honoring Tubman by featuring her on the 20 dollar bill is meant to reflect how times have changed, especially when noting that Tubman, or any person of color, would not have been considered 40 years ago. The pioneer was a source of hope and inspiration during her time and beyond.

Secondly, many are questioning if Tubman being featured on U.S. currency is relevant to her legacy at all. There is some debate about whether this is truly an honor for Tubman, who, throughout her time, fought against the American economic system. Tubman’s history of freeing slaves is in direct contrast with the economic system in which America was built. This further builds the irony associated with Tubman being the face of the 20 dollar bill while a former president, who is famous for his history of slave ownership, is on the back of the same bill.

While the debate about the history of Tubman and her legacy may continue, the actual currency redesign may not happen for more than 20 years. Its relevance to the people who understand Tubman’s place in American history will begin to diminish as time passes, and as the educational system focuses less on what happened during Tubman’s time in history.

Finally, with technology creating the need for less paper currency, 20 dollar bills and all other paper currency will likely be less relevant by the time Tubman’s bill is in circulation. The amount of paper currency in circulation has declined 20 percent since 1995. America is trying to catch up with history by utilizing what will likely become merely commemorative paper in the future.

Paper money becomes less relevant with every passing year, due to the use of electronic payments. The next redesigned bill to be put in circulation will be in 2017, when a vignette on the back of the five dollar bill will be changed to honor the civil rights movement. The redesign of the 10 dollar bill is expected to be released in 2020, honoring the 100th year of the women’s suffrage movement.

Tubman’s descendants had hoped that the honoring of their ancestor would be in line with the anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. However, the 20 dollar bill redesign is not scheduled for consideration for another 20 years.

By Gichele Cocrelle
Edited by Jeanette Smith


USA Today: Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom on the ‘underground railroad’
The Wall Street Journal: Harriet Tubman is Picked to grace the $20 bill
The Washington Post: The irony of putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill Currency and coin services data

Photo courtesy of Battle Creek CVB’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License