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Four Mason professors help in effort to put Harriet Tubman on $20 bill

October 4, 2018   /   by John Hollis

Harriet Tubman could be the first African American and woman featured on a U.S. currency bill.

Four George Mason University professors are among the 127 historians and scholars requesting that the U.S. Department of Treasury place former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill.

Jane Turner Censer, Alison Landsberg, Rosemarie Zagarri and Cynthia Kierner are among the group Historians for Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill that has petitioned U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin to replace President Andrew Jackson with Tubman on the front of the $20 bill.

Tubman, who was part of the Underground Railroad network that helped free slaves, would become the first African American and woman featured on a U.S. currency bill.

“Money is symbolic in that it signifies a value beyond itself,” said Landsberg, a professor within Mason’s Department of History and Art History and the Cultural Studies Program. “As a symbolic object, it commands a certain amount of attention in society. The decision about whose face to celebrate on a bill then also acquires symbolic significance for the nation.

“The faces that appear on currency become symbols of the nation and, as such, contribute to a collective sense of national identity.”

Mnuchin has not yet responded to the petition.

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1822, Tubman escaped in 1849 and made 13 return trips to the South to rescue 70 people, including family and friends, using the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry and served as an armed scout and spy for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Tubman spent her later years as an activist in the women’s suffrage movement before her death in 1913.

“By any measure, she personified key American values,” said Kierner, a professor within Mason’s Department of History and Art History.

The effort to have Tubman honored on the $20 bill picked up steam in 2015 when the group Women on 20s began circulating a poll on the issue. More than 600,000 people voted, and Tubman came out on top in 2016 after the second and final round of voting. In response, the Obama administration committed to the change, which would have included moving Jackson to the back of the bill.

The effort by historians began as a way to bring pressure on Mnuchin to follow through on that plan, said Censer, a professor in Mason’s Department of History and Art History who called Tubman “a worthy person for inclusion on the $20 bill.”

President Donald Trump, however, has balked so far, dismissing the proposed change as “political correctness” and instead suggesting that Tubman might be a better fit for the far less commonly used $2 bill. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea have previously been featured on the ill-fated $1 coin.

“Featuring Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—a highly circulated denomination—then is more than a token gesture,” Landsberg said. “Rather, it affirms the fundamental role Harriet Tubman played as a literal bearer of freedom. Who more than a woman who courageously led enslaved people from bondage to freedom should stand for a nation that declares itself to be ‘the land of the free and home of the brave?’ ”