By Marian Wright Edelman
Every day I wear a pair of medallions around my neck with portraits of two of my role models: Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. As a child I read books about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. She and the indomitable and eloquent Sojourner Truth represent countless anonymous slave women whose bodies and minds were abused and whose voices were muted by slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and sexism throughout our nation’s history. Although Harriet Tubman could not read books, she could read the stars to find her way north to freedom. And she freed not only herself from slavery but returned to slave country again and again across forests, streams and mountains to lead other slaves to freedom at great personal danger. She was tough. She was determined. She was fearless. She was shrewd and she trusted God completely to deliver her and other fleeing slaves from pursuing captors who had placed a bounty on her life.
“’Twa’nt me. ’Twas the Lord. I always told Him, I trust You. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me. And He always did…On my underground railroad, I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” she was quoted as saying. No train, bus or airline company can match this former slave woman’s safety record. And few of us could match her faithful partnership with God, determination to be free and willingness to help others become free without thought about self-sacrifice.
In April 2016, the Obama Administration Treasury Department under then-Secretary Jacob Lew announced that Harriet Tubman’s face would grace the front of the redesigned $20 bill, making her the first woman in more than a century and first African American ever to be represented on the face of an American paper note. But President Trump said he was opposed to the idea of honoring Harriet Tubman that way before he even took office, and three years after the initial announcement, current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has since said that under the Trump Administration the Treasury Department is unsure when or whether that change will still happen. Now a bipartisan pair of House members, Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and John Katko (R-NY), has reintroduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019 (H.R. 1083) to require the Treasury Department to put Tubman on the $20 bill. We must follow through and insist that as our nation prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020 we will be able to celebrate with redesigned American currency that reflects all of us.
When Secretary Lew originally announced this bill honoring Harriet Tubman I celebrated with deep joy and noted that she would not be alone. The Treasury Department also announced that Sojourner Truth and women suffragette activists and leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott would be featured on the back of the $10 bill. It also said great contralto and opera singer Marian Anderson, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be featured on the back of the $5 bill, honoring Marian Anderson’s concert and Dr. King’s March on Washington as groundbreaking events at the Lincoln Memorial that helped shape our democracy. It was eighty years ago this week on Easter Sunday 1939 that Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Marian Anderson, for whom I am named and about whom great conductor Arturo Toscanini said “yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years,” to perform at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall because she was Black. These additions would round out the inspiring group of determined moral warriors who expanded the civil and human rights of women, people of color and all of us, and would now be featured on the bills we use every day.
Former Secretary Lew said he had an ‘aha’ moment about how important these changes were after recognizing the groundswell of public response to his announcement that the Treasury Department was considering changing the design of the currency. To so many people these new bills will be much more than pieces of paper. For too long and for too many, money has been the most powerful symbol of what we value as a nation. Making these leaders and s/heroes among the faces of America by placing them on our currency will send powerful messages about what—and who—we Americans are, value, and strive to become. The new bills also will teach our children and grandchildren and remind all Americans that Black history and women’s history are American history. It is so important to make sure all of our children can see themselves and their ancestors pictured on something as basic as the money used every day by millions and this will deepen the meaning of how we define success in America.
Now it’s time for the Treasury Department to finish the job of paying tribute and public homage to Harriet Tubman and honoring these other great women and Dr. King who died seeking to redeem the soul of America. They never stopped demanding that we live up to our declared creeds of freedom, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and equality for all. Please tell your Members of Congress today that you support the bipartisan efforts to insist that this change happens right now!
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.