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Harriet Tubman once staged a sit-in to get $20. The Treasury just gave her all of them.

How Tubman got the $20 she needed to rescue her own father from slavery.

harriet tubman
An undated portrait of Harriet Tubman.
Universal History Archive via Getty

The news that Harriet Tubman will be replacing Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill is significant for all sorts of reasons. Slave owner Jackson is being pushed to the back of the bill by a former slave; Tubman, who led more than 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, is displacing a president who drove 16,000 Cherokees (and thousands more from other native tribes) out of their homelands on the Trail of Tears.

But even if Tubman weren't displacing Jackson, the $20 would be the perfect bill to honor her, because the sum of $20 played a significant role in her life on two separate occasions.

For one thing, $20 was the amount she earned as a monthly pension after the Civil War, for which she helped the Union as a scout and spy. It was still less than the $25 a month paid to full soldiers, but it was the result of a long legal fight to earn a soldier's pension at all. (Vox's Phil Edwards wrote about this last year, when the social media campaign to put Tubman or another woman on the $20 was at its height.)

But even before that — as Yoni Appelbaum of the Atlantic pointed out on Twitter — the sum of $20 played a huge role in Tubman's efforts to rescue her own father from slavery.

In Tubman's first biography, the 1869 book Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, author Sarah Hopkins Bradford told the story of Tubman's efforts to save her parents as an example of just how rare it was for Tubman to ask for anything from others. "But though so timid for herself," Bradford wrote, "she is bold enough when the wants of her race are concerned" — and unafraid to embarrass powerful people, if necessary.

"I'm not gwine till I git my twenty dollars"

In this case, Bradford writes, Tubman believed she'd gotten "directed" by God to ask for funds to rescue her parents from "a certain gentleman in New York," whom Appelbaum identifies as prominent abolitionist Oliver Johnson:

When she left the house of her friends to go there, she said, "I'm gwine to Mr.--'s office, an' I ain't gwine to lebe there, an' I ain't gwine to eat or drink till I git enough money to take me down after the ole people."

She went into this gentleman's office.

"What do you want, Harriet?" was the first greeting.

"I want some money, sir."

"You do? How much do you want?"

"I want twenty dollars, sir."

"Twenty dollars? Who told you to come here for twenty dollars?"

"De Lord tole me, sir."

"Well, I guess the Lord's mistaken this time."

"I guess he isn't, sir. Anyhow I'm gwine to sit here till I git it."

So she sat down and went to sleep. All the morning and all the afternoon she sat there still, sleeping and rousing up--sometimes finding the office full of gentlemen--sometimes finding herself alone. Many fugitives were passing through Now York at that time, and those who came in supposed that she was one of them, tired out and resting. Sometimes she would be roused up with the words, "Come, Harriet, you had better go. There's no money for you here." "No, sir. I'm not gwine till I git my twenty dollars."

Ultimately, Tubman got her twenty dollars — and then some. Bradford writes that Tubman eventually fell asleep in the office, and woke up to find $60 in her pocket. But they hadn't come from Johnson; they'd come from the other "fugitive" ex-slaves passing through the office, who managed to raise a tremendous amount of money to help Tubman bring one more to their ranks.

Tubman used the money to rescue her father — who was on trial for helping slaves escape — and bring him all the way up to Canada, where he couldn't be recaptured into slavery.

Admittedly, $20 doesn't go as far as it used to. But once Tubman's face is being minted onto new $20 bills, she'll be part of every exchange in the amount of cash even a prominent abolitionist wouldn't give her to save her own father. And to people who know that story, it might even serve as a reminder of how much more valuable $20 is to those who have less.

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