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Harriet Tubman scholar: the $20 "might make people think twice about the legacy of slavery"

A portrait of Harriet Tubman.
A portrait of Harriet Tubman.
MPI via Getty Images

The reactions to Wednesday's announcement that Harriet Tubman is going to be the new face of the $20 bill have been wide ranging: praise, contempt, as well as sobering reminders that America's economy was founded on the backs of people like Tubman through slavery.

Is the Treasury Department's move retribution after centuries of very male and very white currency in America? And yet, is this the most apt way to honor a woman who fought to be free from circulating as someone else's currency?

Vox spoke with Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, a Harriet Tubman scholar, to weigh in on what the future Tubman $20 bill means for us today.

Victoria Massie: How do you think Harriet Tubman teaches us the importance of combining women's history and African-American history?

Kate Clifford Larson: I think it's broader than that. I think it's about highlighting the history of Americans in our past that are not all the great white men. That women, white women, women of color, men of color, contributed to this nation, in shaping it, and driving it forward as much as those white men that had been written so much about.

Tubman [provides] a perfect example of the lack of attention to African-American history, women's history, over time. And it's now taught much more readily in schools, since the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. It's part of curriculum in colleges. To have Tubman now on the $20 [bill] just sort of changes the landscape and, I hope, will help us all begin to look beyond the George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns, the Alexander Hamiltons of the world to the rest of story, and how we are where we are today, and where we should be going.

VM: So what are your thoughts about the announcement that Harriet Tubman will be sharing, not replacing, Andrew Jackson?

KCL: Of course, I'm a little bit disgusted because he doesn't belong on the currency at all. He was a slaveholder, and, worse than that, he was responsible for the death of thousands and thousands of Native Americans. But she's on the front, and I'll take it. I wish they wouldn't put Andrew Jackson on the back, and I hope he is a tiny, tiny, little figure if they put him on the back, but she deserves front and center, and I don't want anything to take away from the excitement that she's the face of the $20 bill.

VM: Even though Harriet Tubman, a former enslaved person, is replacing a former slaveholder, do you think it's contradictory to put a former slave, who was once physical capital, on money?

KCL: So I have a definite opinion about this. I know some feminist scholars are arguing that it's the capitalist system that oppresses people and oppressed Tubman in the day because she was enslaved. I think I know Tubman very well, and she would be very happy about this because Tubman was an entrepreneur. Even when she was enslaved, she convinced her enslaver to allow herself to hire herself out and earn extra money. And that sounds crazy, that she had to beg so that she could hire herself out. But she was an entrepreneur.

She made money to buy oxen so she could plow fields and earn more money to liberate herself. And then she was an entrepreneur during the Civil War. She taught formerly enslaved women how to do work and ask for pay for it. And then she built her home in Auburn, New York.

She ran a brickyard. She sold vegetables. She traded with people. She ran a hog farm. She was an early business woman. And she knew that economic power meant freedom as well. And so she used her own self-determination to give herself economic power. And she sought that for other people. And so putting her on the $20 validates all of her efforts toward self-determination and economic power.

VM: A major component of the campaign to change the $20 bill was to put a woman on it. What does it mean for Tubman to be put on the bill as a woman based on what you've seen with her relationship as a black woman, for instance, with the women's suffrage movement?

KCL: Tubman struggled with the suffragist movement because there were some suffragists, not all of them, but some suffragists were racist. And they only wanted to vote for white women, not for black women. So Tubman stood in opposition to the racist suffragists who said that black women shouldn't get the vote. And she had the support of many white suffragists, and she stood as a reminder that black women fought and struggled and deserved the vote just like white women did. And as Americans, they all deserved it. And so for her, as a representative of the suffrage movement too, it seems perfect as well.

She didn't live long enough to see it, but she fought and reminded people. As a matter of fact, she said once during a public speech that she and other women had suffered enough and it was about time they got the vote.

VM: What do you think is the lesson to be learned by raising up a black woman specifically to rectify the way we uphold white men in general?

KCL: All this, the conversations, the back and forth in the past few years, not only about Black Lives Matter, and boy is this a testament that black lives matter: Tubman is on the $20 [bill]. But also this contentious issue about slavery, the memory of slavery, the history of slavery, and the taking down of the Confederate flags — a lot of people feel removed from that conversation. A lot of people don't have to face it every day. But when Tubman is spit out of an ATM, every day, the face of her on that $20, it might make people think twice about the legacy of slavery in this country. And that's why I think having her there on the $20 will move this conversation forward, even more so for generations to come.