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Another side to the Tubman twenty

By Public Affairs

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, circa 1877 (Ohio History Connection, photo by H.G. Smith, Studio Building, Boston)

The U.S. Treasury department recently announced a plan to diversify the cast of historical figures on U.S. currency — putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman, for instance, on the face of the new $20 bill.

That’s an amazing leap forward for women and for African Americans, right?

“Maybe. Maybe not,” says Stephanie Jones-Rogers, assistant professor of history. “As a historian, there is something discomforting about an enslaved woman on the front of American currency,” she writes on the Berkeley Blog .

“The Treasury’s move makes me uncomfortable, not simply because they’re putting a woman who was once a commodity bought and sold on the very thing used to buy her,” she says. “It also causes me dis-ease” because it does not incorporate a “richer, more complex, and more troubling history into our conversation about the Treasury’s decision to do so.”

Enslaved people “often had dreadful ties to currency,” writes Jones-Rogers. “They were ‘assets’ that could be liquidated, and many formerly enslaved people spoke of slave-owners who sold them for cash in order to pay off debts.” In fact, she notes, Harriet Tubman ran away from the Maryland plantation where she was enslaved in order to escape such a sale.

Read Jones-Rogers timely essay on how “the sordid history of American slavery and American capitalism has shaped my response to the news about Harriet Tubman’s image on the new $20 bill.”