In 2020, Harriet Tubman’s likeness will appear on the face of the
$20 bill. She will also be the first woman to appear on U.S. currency. Ironically, $20 is the exact amount of her Civil War monthly pension. To add to the irony, the slaveholding president, Andrew Jackson remains on the bill. We might have chosen a more friendly partner, but at least he has been demoted from its face to the rear.
Harriet Tubman, originally named Araminta (“Minty”) was born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland, the fifth of nine children. Her childhood was one of daily beatings and forced hard labor. The family was fragmented when members were sold to distant plantations. Her skull was fractured by an irate overseer when she attempted to save a young boy, injuries which left her with headaches and seizures the remainder of her life. She says of her childhood, “I grew up like a neglected weed, – ignorant of liberty.”
Around 1844, Harriett married John Tubman, a free man, a rare occurrence at the time. Five years later, fearing she was about to be sold, she and two brothers escaped. By this time she had changed her name to Harriett. Her brothers turned back, but she continued alone and finally escaped to freedom. Her husband decided not to join her and instead married another woman with whom he had four children. Harriett was heartbroken, but refused to sacrifice her freedom and instead committed to bringing other slaves to freedom. From 1850 to 1860, by her own account Tubman returned to Maryland 13 times and rescued 70 family and friends. Harriet was a no-nonsense leader who carried a rifle on these trips to discourage slaves she was trying to help from trying to turn back. If necessary, she bribed people.
Harriett Tubman was one of the most prolific Underground Railroad conductors of all time. During the Civil War, she served as nurse, scout, cook and spy in the Union Army and became the first American woman to lead an armed raid into enemy territory. Harriet returned to Auburn, New York after the war and began another career as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist. The capstone of her humanitarian work was the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located near her home in Auburn. Harriett continued to be active in the suffrage movement and appeared at suffrage conventions until the early 1900s. She died at her home in Auburn, NY in 1912, at the age of ninety. Harriet Tubman attributed her ability to risk everything for the cause of freedom to her deep spiritual faith.
In 1944, the S.S. Harriet Tubman, the first Liberty ship named for a black woman was launched in South Portland, Maine and in 1978, the U.S. Postal Service issued the Harriet Tubman stamp in 1978, the first in the Black Heritage Series. The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974, and her residence was declared an historic landmark in the 1990s.
Myths surround the life of Harriet Tubman. Photos on the internet of a beautiful young girl are falsely identified as Harriet. She has been credited with the rescue of over 300 people all over the south in 19 trips with a $40,000 bounty on her head. She has been said to have navigated the Underground Railroad using the quilt code. Several Civil Rights slogans are falsely attributed to her.
In my mind, these myths do Harriett Tubman a disservice. There is no need to exaggerate or embellish her story. The truth speaks for itself. There’s no need to say anything more. And beginning in 2020 her face on the $20 bill will remind us of incredible courage and unswerving dedication to the cause of freedom.
Kate Larson has recently published an excellent history of Tubman’s life. See Book of the Week and also the website for the book;
Disclaimer: Harriett Tubman was not born in the south but is included here because of her significant impact on southern women.