The Little-Known Reason Why Harriet Tubman On The $20 Bill Is So Significant

Tubman's relationship to the $20 amount goes back further than you think.
The new $20 bill featuring anti-slavery freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is expected to release by 2030.
The new $20 bill featuring anti-slavery freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is expected to release by 2030.

Harriet Tubman made black history again on Wednesday when it was reported that she will replace former President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill.

The news marks a hugely historic moment after advocates rallied for months to have Tubman be recognized on such a monumental level. It's a significant move that represents one of the most symbolic honors ever awarded to a legendary black icon. 

Tubman is the first African American to grace American currency, a major moment especially considering that Tubman, who was born a slave, will occupy the spot once reserved for Jackson -- whom history remembers a racist, genocidal slaveholder. 

However, that's not the only reason why Tubman's new recognition on one of the nation's most used bills is so remarkable. The $20 amount also holds special significance to Tubman's story, according to a history lesson The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum shared on Twitter Wednesday:

The exceptional story is found in the first known biography of the late Tubman, titled Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. The book, groundbreaking for its time, was published in 1869 and written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, a white woman who knew Tubman personally and wrote the book to help raise money for her.  This particular lesson embedded within the book helps to bring full circle meaning to having Tubman's face featured on the same money that was once used to buy and sell beaten black bodies. 

Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress taken between 1860 and 1870.
Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress taken between 1860 and 1870.

However, Tubman, who was born a slave and later escaped to Philadelphia in 1849, was not only a freedom fighter who relentlessly advocated for full freedom of enslaved black people: She also served during the Civil War mainly as a nurse and secret spy for the Union. After returning home to New York in 1865, Tubman took care of her elderly parents and served in a nearby hospital. Her husband died three years later and she fell on hard times financially.

Tubman attempted to receive the compensation she was owed for her service but was denied by the government because she apparently lacked proper documentation of her work, according to Vox. Tubman later appealed to the federal government twice and underwent back-and-forth discussions with the courts. The congressional Committee of Pensions eventually determined that her final compensation be $20 a month. 

Given her role in America's complicated racial history, Tubman's face featured prominently on the paper bill has triggered mixed reactions to the news. While some have issued celebratory praise for Tubman's recognition, others are hesitant that it will bring renewed boss status to a black woman whose legacy they fear has been cheapened and commodified. 

But the truth is, putting Tubman's face on an American paper bill matters because representation matters. The bill, which is expected to be released in 2030, will show the face of a revolutionary black woman who escaped slavery, founded the Underground Railroad and fought to make her life and her country better. 

Meanwhile, civil rights hero Martin Luther King as well as various historical women will grace the back of both the $10 and $5 bills, including an image of Marian Anderson, the first black opera star who was once barred from performing at the Constitution Hall because of her race. 

However, it's Tubman's honor that is the true standout. Her presence on the paper bill will be an indelible reminder of the racist history that still haunts this country, and forge reflections on the implications it has today. Ultimately, it is a widespread symbol of black America’s fight for liberation and the power of freedom, something we should all stand to be more mindful of in our day-to-day lives. 

In Tubman, we trust. 

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