A slave-owning man on one side, a formerly enslaved woman on the other, and in between them lies the very thing that he could have used to buy her. This is how I think about the new $20 bill, which will soon feature Harriet Tubman and Andrew Jackson.
This happenstance is the fruit born largely of grassroots demands and a protracted, yearlong campaign — Women on 20s — which was founded by Barbara Ortiz Howard.
“A woman’s place is on the money,” is the campaign’s slogan. Since its founding, Ortiz and Susan Ades Stone, Women on 20s’ executive director, pounded the virtual ground to get this done. They wrote op-ed pieces for the New York Times and Time magazine and they even created YouTube videos to promote the cause.
One hundred women were in contention. All of them were “female American hero[es]”: Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wilma Mankiller, who was added later, and Harriet Tubman made the final cut. In the end, Harriet Tubman won the most votes in the Women on 20s poll. (You can find out more about the Women on 20s campaign here.)
They collected 600,000 signatures supporting their petition to Jacob Lew, secretary of the U.S. Treasury, to place a woman on the $20 bill. And recently, Lew announced that Tubman will indeed be the new face that we see on the front.
That’s an amazing leap forward, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
There have been dissenting voices around this issue, and more have emerged in the past few days. Not just those of conservative politicians or the keep-Jackson-on-the-front sort. But the black feminist sort, criticizing the Treasury’s move. They argue that a woman, most especially a formerly enslaved black woman, has no business on American currency. Women have long been bartered and traded between men, and during slavery, African American women were quite literally bartered and traded; they were legally defined as property.
So these dissenters ponder: Placing a woman who was considered capital on a piece of paper that signifies capital? How could this be a good idea? And what about the many years that white slave-owners brutalized Tubman and her kin as they toiled for their families without ever being compensated?
Putting her on the $20 bill? What kind of recompense is this? It’s just not, black feminists contend. Feminista Jones‘ take on the issue, which appears in the Washington Post, captures the richness of the broader argument that black feminists (and others) are making.
As a historian, there is something discomforting about an enslaved woman on the front of American currency. Yes. Even an extraordinary woman like Harriet Tubman. The woman who stole herself from her owner and ran away to freedom. The conductor of the Underground Railroad who suffered from hypersomnia, which caused her to spontaneously fall asleep as she shepherded enslaved people to freedom. The woman who went back to the South during the Civil War and served as a Union spy. The woman who fought for female suffrage after the war was over.
Yes. It troubles me to think of seeing her on American currency, and it is especially troubling that Andrew Jackson — a president whose nickname was the “Indian Killer,” who was responsible for signing into law the Indian Removal Act, and who owned 150 enslaved African Americans at the time of his death — will be on the other side.
Currency and bondage
The women behind the Women on 20s campaign argue that “a woman’s place is on the money,” but I can’t be as emphatic as they are about this. Why? Because of the broader historical context in which this issue should be grounded and understood, of which they seem relatively, if not completely, unaware.
As I read about the efforts to place a woman, and an African American woman in particular, on the $10 or $20 bill, my mind was flooded with images of the many pieces of paper currency upon which white women and enslaved men and women routinely appeared during the 19th century. And they appeared on virtually every denomination. But when they appeared on U.S. currency, they were not symbols of African American fearlessness, freedom or tenacity, or women’s equality. They weren’t emblematic of justice and progress, either, at least not for enslaved people.
The images of women and enslaved people on these bills visually portray exactly what historians, such as Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and my colleague Caitlin Rosenthal, have argued: that the histories of American slavery and American capitalism are profoundly entwined.
The history of white women and enslaved people on American currency is by no means invisible. Just go to eBay (yes, eBay) and search for “obsolete currency.” You’ll find thousands of these bills, and you’ll also find plenty of women and enslaved people on them.
In virtually every Southern state, white women appeared on $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and even $100 bills, typically surrounded by cotton and laboring enslaved people. In the most bucolic scenes, white women lounged on plush patches of grass, sometimes with infants in their arms or children nearby, with family dogs and baskets of food at their feet, all while enslaved people could be seen tilling fields in the distance.
One of the most popular images was that of Moneta, the Greek goddess of money, except here, in the context of the slave South, she was refashioned as the goddess of cotton. Often holding a cotton plant in her hand, she sat upon a 400-pound bale of cotton with baskets stuffed with more cotton, or overflowing with fruit, at her feet.
One of the most “interesting” of these bills featured a white woman and a presumably mixed-race woman by her side. They too are surrounded by cotton as they sit upon a grassy knoll overlooking a cotton field being cultivated by enslaved African Americans. As they engage in conversation, the mixed-race woman points to the people in the field. I often wonder whether this white woman owned her, and the enslaved laborers in the distance, too.
And that brings me to another bit of irony. As we hail the placement of a formerly enslaved African American woman on the $20 bill as a feminist victory, few will readily acknowledge white women’s profound economic investments in slavery or the many women who owned enslaved people like Harriet Tubman. In my own work, I examine the ways in which white Southern women cultivated economic relationships to slavery over the course of their lives — even married women, who faced different legal and economic constraints than women who were single and widowed.
These women bought, sold and hired enslaved African Americans for personal and professional reasons and they reaped the financial rewards of doing so. Owning human beings allowed these women to exercise certain kinds of power and autonomy that would not otherwise be available to them. Apparently, these facts were not lost on the men who designed 19th-century currency. On many bills, white women and enslaved people dominated the images, but white men were virtually if not entirely absent.
As I conducted research for my book, I also learned that a white Southern woman named Mary Brodess owned Harriet Tubman’s mother, and that the actions of another slave-owning woman, Eliza Brodess, served as the catalyst for Harriet’s decision to escape.
Eliza was married to Edward Brodess, Harriet’s legal owner, and when he died in 1849, his will granted Eliza permission to use Harriet and her family and to benefit from the wages they earned when she hired them out to local residents. Eliza also served as the administrator of Edward’s estate, and in that capacity, she began to sell members of Harriet’s family. Eliza sold them even though her children were supposed to inherit them after her death.
Although Eliza brokered these sales in her official capacity as her husband’s administrator, she was not above selling her own slaves whenever she wanted to. She sold Dawes Keene, one of the four enslaved people she owned in her own right, on Nov. 5, 1850.
Slave-owners like Eliza often sold enslaved people hundreds and even a thousand miles away from one another, making it almost impossible for them to find their loved ones after sale. Many enslaved people anticipated this fate, so when Eliza began selling Harriet’s family, Harriet saw the writing on the wall. Before Eliza had the chance to sell her too, she stole away to freedom.
Eliza was not prepared to lose Harriet’s value, so she placed an ad in the Cambridge Democrat offering a $100 reward for Harriet’s capture. That’s approximately $3,000 in 2016 money. If it wasn’t for Eliza Brodess’s decision to sell Harriet’s loved ones, we might not even have the “Harriet Tubman” we’ve come to know and love. (Kate Larson offers extensive commentary on the role Eliza played in Harriet’s transformation from fugitive to the “Moses of her people” in Bound for the Promised Land).
A sordid history
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. It also causes me dis-ease because we are not including this richer, more complex, and more troubling history into our conversation about the Treasury’s decision to do so.
I know that the $20 bill is significant in Harriet’s story. It was the sum she needed to buy her father’s freedom and it was the amount of her pension after the Civil War. But I also know that enslaved people often had dreadful ties to currency. 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. They also spoke of masters and mistresses who threatened to “put them in their pockets” when they misbehaved, and they remembered the many owners who made good on those threats too. Eliza Brodess may have done just that if Harriet hadn’t run away.
In profound ways, this 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. And I can’t help but wonder how we will reconcile this part of Harriet’s past with what is fast becoming her present.
Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan of Democracy Now! recently wrote one of the few historically contextualized pieces I’ve come across about this issue thus far, wherein they issued a call for us to think about the Harriet $20 as a “currency of resistance.” Their argument bears repeating:
What better tribute to her lifetime of struggle could there be than to place her image into the hands of hundreds of millions of people? Imagine if the minimum-wage movement, currently dubbed the “fight for fifteen,” were to be transformed by the defiant visage on that $20 bill… Let Harriet Tubman on the $20 become the image for the next stage of the movement, the Harriet Tubman movement for the $20-per-hour minimum wage. Let the Harriet Tubman $20 bill become the hallmark of a renewed demand for reparations to African Americans for the lasting devastations of slavery.
Goodman and Moynihan’s call for Harriet’s face to “become the image for the next stage of the movement” for a higher minimum wage doesn’t take into account the data, which suggests that African Americans are still struggling to secure and maintain the jobs granting access to those higher wages, especially young African Americans, because of racially biased institutional practices.
Black people have long argued that they have to be “twice as good” as others at their jobs in order to keep them and that they are the “last hired and the first fired.” Such adages are backed up with data from a recent study conducted by Costas Cavounidis and Kevin Lang of Boston College. They found that employers subject African American employees to routine hyper-surveillance and persistent scrutiny when compared to their white counterparts, so much so that when African American employees make errors, they’re detected earlier and more consistently.
This may lead to negative evaluations, which impact future earnings and promotions, and even termination. When African Americans attempt to re-enter the job market, all of this literally counts against them: they may earn less because of the lapses in their employment and because of the risks they allegedly pose to their new employers, who view them and their inconsistent employment histories with skepticism.
Moreover, when they secure new positions, the hyper-surveillance and persistent scrutiny start all over again. Ultimately, making Harriet’s $20 the hallmark of a movement for a higher minimum wage would do little to alleviate the structural racism that precludes African Americans from reaping the benefits of said movement.
And, as far as making the new bill “the hallmark of a renewed demand for reparations” goes, the bill wouldn’t be a part of renewed demands, but rather persistent ones. African Americans have been demanding “reparations” in some form or another (formerly enslaved people often asked for “pensions,” not “reparations”) since at least the Revolutionary era (see Roy E. Finkbine’s article on a formerly enslaved woman’s Revolutionary-era petition for reparations here).
They’ve mobilized around the issue (see Mary Frances Berry’s book about Callie House, one of the leaders of the post-Civil War reparations movement among formerly enslaved people), they’ve written about it (e.g., Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic piece) and petitioned the government about it.
And just a few months ago, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent recommended that the U.S. government deliver reparatory justice to African Americans. The staggering amount of evidence they gathered prior to making this recommendation makes it astonishingly clear that what is truly necessary is a culture, not a currency, of resistance. Their findings reveal that our government and many of our leaders simply won’t acknowledge, in a meaningful way, the myriad structures that created racial inequalities and economic injustices and that remain pervasive today. They are not committed to transforming them and have largely refused to do away with the customs, laws and institutions that sustain them.
I wonder what Harriet Tubman would think about all of this. Would she think that her placement on the $20 bill signifies some sort of break with the past? Would she think that this move on the part of the U.S. Treasury will help to redress the persistent wrongs done to African Americans in the present?
In a variety of ways, the discussion that Harriet Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill has ignited suggests that who Harriet was and what she will continue to represent for us in the future will be highly contested. The Harriet we knew will be vastly different from the Harriet she is likely to become.