Harriet Tubman, an African American woman who escaped slavery and helped other slaves escape the U.S. on the Underground Railroad, will be the first woman to appear on U.S. paper currency in a century.
Her portrait will appear on the front of the new US $20 bill, the final design of which will be unveiled in 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department revealed Wednesday.
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Born into slavery, Tubman became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, which saw thousands of slaves make their way to Canada in the 1800s.
According to York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute, Tubman escaped a plantation in Maryland and fled to Philadelphia — Pennsylvania was already a free state — before eventually making her way to St. Catharines, Ont. in 1851.
“In 1850, a new American law (the Fugitive Slave Law) made it dangerous for ‘fugitives from slavery’ to remain anywhere in the United States,” the Harriet Tubman Institute explained on its website.
“I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer,” the website quoted Tubman saying. “But I brought ’em all clear off to Canada.”
From St. Catharines, where she wound up living over the course of eight years, Tubman travelled back and forth to the United States 19 times to guide other slaves north to Canada. Many of the former slaves she escorted to Canada were the family and friends of people who had already made it north.
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This was all with great risk to her own freedom.
“Angry slave owners posted rewards for her capture, but she continued her work despite great personal risk,” according to a short documentary the Canadian government produced in honour of the 100th anniversary of her death in 1913.
During her time in St. Catharines, she offered her own home as a shelter for those who arrived in the town and “even took in homeless children from the streets of St. Catharines, the Harriet Tubman Institute website details. She also raised money to help the new arrivals get their start in Canada.
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In announcing plans to put Tubman’s picture on the $20 bill, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew noted her contribution to the abolition of slavery and her later efforts in the fight for women’s right to vote.
“Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embodies the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we will continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency,” Lew said in a statement.
Tubman’s visage will replace the image of President Andrew Jackson, which will actually be moved to the back of the bill — who, as the New York Times noted, supported slavery and forcibly relocated Native Americans.