Harriet Tubman to be new face of $20

Artist rendering of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill. (Illustration by Women on 20s.)
Artist rendering of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill. (Illustration by Women on 20s.)

Black anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, the U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday.

The announcement makes Tubman the first African-American to appear on U.S. paper currency. Tubman, who escaped from slavery, returned to the south multiple times as a leading conductor on the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses that helped slaves in the south escape to anti-slavery states and Canada.

Tubman also was a nurse, cook and a spy for the Union army during the Civil War.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote in his announcement:

The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old. I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.

A campaign to put a woman on the $20 that gathered steam last year applauded the choice and vowed to work with the next presidential administration to make sure that the $20 gets changed “in a timely way.”

Secretary Lew’s choice of the freed slave and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman to one day feature on the $20 note is an exciting one, especially given that she emerged as the choice of more than half a million voters in our online poll last Spring.  Not only did she devote her life to racial equality, she fought for women’s rights alongside the nation’s leading suffragists.

However, some on social media criticized the move, as the Washington Post noted.

Jackson isn’t leaving the $20 completely. His image will be featured on the backside of the note.

The Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said the change was appropriate, because as president, Jackson advocated for expulsion of native tribes from their homelands.

It’s been an insult to our people and to our ancestors, thousands of whom died of starvation and exposure and now lie in unmarked graves along the Trail of Tears.

The changes go beyond just the $20. The Treasury Department announced that the $10 bill was next in line for a redesign, but new designs of the $20 and $5 would be released “as soon as possible.”

Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father and the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury who became a recent celebrity thanks to the Broadway musical based on his life, will remain on the $10, but the reverse will be redesigned to feature heroes of women’s suffrage.

The $5 note will continue to feature President Abraham Lincoln on the front, and images of opera singer Marian Anderson, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the reverse.

Editor’s note: updated with reaction from the Cherokee Nation.