What Happened to the Plan to Put Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill?

Two years ago this week, the Treasury secretary announced civil rights and women’s icons would be on America’s money. Where are they?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When a Harriet Tubman scholar found out in 2016 that the abolitionist she studied for decades was going to be the new face of the $20 bill, she cried.

“Here you have an African American woman, formerly enslaved who fought and struggled her whole life for freedom and equality.” Kate Larson said.

But Larson and others eager to withdraw Tubmans from the bank may have to wait longer than expected. Two years ago this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced redesigns for the $20, $10, and $5 bills that would honor civil rights and women’s rights icons: Tubman, Alice Paul, and Marian Anderson. Lew said the new note designs would debut by 2020, 100 years after women gained the right to vote.

But now the Trump administration is putting the plan on the backburner, according to the Treasury department.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing told The Daily Beast that the redesigns have not been finalized or approved for circulation. The next note set to be released is the $10 bill, and the redesign won’t enter circulation until 2026, according to a spokesperson.

Before Lew’s announcement, the Treasury Department’s Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee signaled that a new $10 bill would be rolled out first, followed by the $50 bill, and then the $20 bill. The release dates for all the new notes could be pushed back even further to fight counterfeiting, according to a spokesperson. That means the public may not see the Tubman $20 bill until years, even decades after the original 2020 design release date.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has the final say on the Tubman $20 note and other redesigns, according the spokesperson.

“Ultimately we will be looking at this issue, [but] it’s not something that I’m focused on at the moment,”  Mnuchin told CNN last year.

President Trump, a fan of Andrew Jackson, the current face of the $20, has not spoken on the redesign since his election, but in 2016 he said the decision was “pure political correctness” and recommended that Tubman’s portrait should go on the barely circulated $2 bill instead.

The original rollout in 2016 was met with fanfare and some frustration.

“For the first time in more than a century, the front of our currency will feature the portrait of a woman,” Secretary Lew said in a letter announcing the decision. Women’s rights organizations who rallied for a woman to go on paper money (two women have appeared on national coins, Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony) applauded the decision they fought for but wondered why the recognition took so long.

The founders of Women on 20s, an organization that created a grassroots campaign and public poll to put a woman on the popular currency before the Treasury’s decision, told The Daily Beast that the redesign news was a “trifecta” moment. Susan Ades Stone and Barbara Ortiz Howard rallied for Tubman’s face on the $20, but they were not expecting additions to the notes of lesser value.

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The campaign idea dawned on Howard while she was waiting in line for coffee. Both women suspected the public would be interested in pushing for a female face on paper currency, too.

“We hope the reveal of the design will happen in 2020,” they said. “With all the talk of equality and showing respect to women as equals and recognizing our valuable contributions, this is something we should be trumpeting to the rest of the world.”

Larson, a Tubman scholar and biographer hopes the redesign rollout will show Americans a different side of the abolitionist, who is often viewed as grandmotherly and mythical.

“I think it will spread her legacy far beyond than it already is. The real truth of her life is more inspiring than the myths,” said Larson.

When asked about the whitewashing of black historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Tubman, Larson said, “People don’t want to hear about unflattering parts of their lives, and the militancy of many black leaders is a problem for some white Americans.”

During the initial announcement, some critics said putting a former slave on U.S. capital was problematic. But Larson thinks Tubman would be honored to be on the new $20: the Maryland native bought oxen to earn more money and save up to buy her freedom, though she ended up running away from slavery. The icon, who lived into her 90s, ran a farm and worked in the brick-making business.

“She was an entrepreneur,” said Larson.

Tubman’s descendants are waiting on the new bill, too. Pauline Copes Johnson, the 90-year-old great-great-grandniece of Tubman, told The Root when she found out her aunt’s face would cover money, “Hallelujah, at last it has come to pass.’”

Correction: This article previously said Tubman bought her freedom from slavery. We regret the error.