Spring–time for a thorough cleaning. As I dusted and mopped the far recesses of my psyche, I found, way back in a corner under a pile of yet to be written topics, the remains of an official government project to honor the life of Harriet Tubman by putting her image on our twenty-dollar bills. How did this Obama era project get shoved so far back in my mind?
Then came the aha moment. It’s an Obama project; debated, planned, and logically scheduled for a 2020 unveiling to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women suffrage–one of Harriet’s pet projects. Its rollout date comes during the Donald Trump presidency, a presidency that makes it policy to shun all things Obama, just because. The West Wing crew thought, “out of sight, out of mind” and tried to ignore the issue. When finally asked about it, two years later, in keeping with the Trump tradition of looking at every Obama action with an equal and opposite reaction, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that this activity was too difficult to proceed with until, say, 2028. He claims that creating currency, which is already designed, is too great a task for this administration to handle without causing a risk of forgery. Mnuchin didn’t say it just that way, but he seemed clear. They can’t use the technology of our other bills to print a new one? Mnuchin contends it’s too difficult for them.
Then the second aha moment hit. There’s another reason. The Tubman tribute is to be placed on the bill that currently sports the mug of the eighth president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson is Mr. Trump’s adopted favorite president because early on Steve Bannon told him they were a lot alike. Jackson was a populist who came from humble beginnings (unlike Trump) but went on to great wealth and standing by owning and brokering over 100 slaves, beating and treating them badly, but ending up with The Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, a plantation and mansion built and sustained by those ill-treated slaves. I can see Trump nodding in approval. Jackson was also the president who decided to clear-cut the entire area east of the Mississippi River of any Native Americans. He forced thousands onto reservations in the desert West and began what the Natives still mourn today as the Trail of Tears. Brown people being stripped of their rights and sent to gray, rocky, arid lands in favor of white people getting a chance to settle on quality, tillable acreage. I can see why Bannon thought the two presidents were kindred spirits.
My question is how did Jackson get on the bill in the first place? He’s been there since 1928 when Calvin Coolidge was president. There isn’t a good answer out there. Jackson was a populist and a warrior (also unlike Trump), but that hardly seems adequate to be featured on U.S. currency.
We were headed in the right direction with the debate to honor an American hero who saved hundreds of slaves during the Civil War by leading them to freedom through the Underground Railroad and then turned her life and meager monetary savings to the cause of earning women the right to vote. Her life was one of sacrifice and honor.
Donald Trump didn’t really squash the idea of having Mrs. Tubman’s image honored as the first woman on American currency (we’ve had women on coins–Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony, and Lady Liberty) but Trump doesn’t want to replace Jackson’s image with Tubman’s. He thinks she should be on a “lesser bill, like the two-dollar bill,” and not on the twenty, the ones that come spewing out of ATMs across the country all day every day. It is in keeping with Trump’s misogyny and bigotry to suggest that Mrs. Tubman’s honor be relegated to bills that are used for quirky door prizes and birthday card enclosures. They certainly aren’t the answer to “What’s in your wallet?”
Tubman’s bill isn’t an issue of national security, nor will it enhance the economy so families can earn a decent living on one job with the ability pay rent, buy food, and save a little, nor will it insure healthcare for all. Those are issues Harriet Tubman would have championed and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind waiting for her special recognition if Trump and company were actually working on those hotbed needs, but they’re not. She’d certainly defer to the more pressing issues, but that is the very reason we need to get this project dusted off and back into the sunlight. Our wellbeing as a country is more than Congressional acts. We take pride and comfort in the stories that come from our heroes’ lives and Harriet Tubman’s story is top of the list.
Harriet Tubman’s story, a black woman who repeatedly risked her life for the safety and freedom of others and after success in that field became an original leader in the women’s suffrage movement is money-worthy. Trying to do good, putting country above self, just isn’t a path Mr. Trump would choose for himself. I’m thinking his image best fits on the mythical three-dollar bill.
Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.