Symbolism matters. So does well-deserved recognition. Often, both take awhile, unfortunately.
I am referring to stalling efforts by the Trump Administration, for oblique reasons decipherable only to it, to place the Eastern Shore’s famed and intrepid Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman, on the 20-dollar bill to replace the racist President Andrew Jackson.
The Biden Administration has reversed its predecessor’s obstruction, moving ahead to place one of our nation’s fiercest slavery fighters on US currency. The new Tubman 20 likely will not materialize until 2025.
Some may ask: Who cares? Why does it matter?
American currency memorializes our Founding Fathers, such as Presidents Washington and Jefferson and Citizen Extraordinaire Ben Franklin, Presidents Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as Alexander Hamilton. Raised in a traditional, patriotic manner, I always imagined (when I was not capriciously spending it) that those pictured or engraved were people whom I should respect, if not revere.
And so I did. Until I learned more about these flawed individuals whose wisdom and common sense still impresses me, in most cases. If I am a young person being taught the meaning of money and about those portrayed on coins and bills, then I would think that someone like Harriet Tubman is an ideal choice.
If some might consider her a politically correct choice to replace the disruptive Jackson, I have one response: baloney.
She is a superb choice. If informed properly by parents or grandparents, children today would learn that Tubman was a heroic savior for slaves in Dorchester County. This intrepid woman was fearless. Slavery imprisoned her friends and family in an inhumane system that trampled people’s spirits, if not killed them as if they were worthless chattel.
It was a shameful socio-economic system that still haunts our nation, if not condemns it for its pernicious past. Tubman’s image on a $20 bill would compel parents and teachers to explain why a little Black woman—with incredible courage and unmatched skill in navigating the countryside and avoiding merciless slave hunters—deserves to be memorialized.
She would be a role model. As a Black woman, she shattered all misconceptions; she surpassed men in her courage and conviction. She was relentless.
Though uneducated, she expressed her eloquence and passion through life-defying actions in a society that in some quarters considered her a no-good thief.
After all, she was stealing property from slave owners, many opined. Tubman’s story must be told. She did not steal. She gave slaves freedom extracted amorally from them.
A $20 bill with the image of a small, determined women staring out at a world still riddled with anti-Black prejudice pays appropriate homage to a Dorchester County native—and American hero.
A tribute written in 1868 by Talbot County native, orator and renown abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, aptly underscores the depth and daring of Harriet Tubman in using her uncanny expertise to carry slaves to lives free of mental and economic shackles:
“I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”
Symbolism has meaning. It conveys a story well worth telling to all Americans. In this case, it also shines a light on a despicable part of our history.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.