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A Black Woman Born Into Slavery Replaces a White Slave Owner on $20 Note

Harriet Tubman, the 19th century abolitionist, is about to replace President Andrew Jackson. She'll be the first black person on American banknotes.
Harriet Tubman. Photo par H. B. Lindsley / via Library of Congress

Harriet Tubman – the 19th century abolitionist and suffragist who led dozens of slaves through the Underground Railroad to free states – is about to become the new face of the $20 bill, replacing slaveholder Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States.

The Treasury Department secretary Jack Lew announced the decision – which would make Tubman the first black American and second woman to appear on American paper currency – on Wednesday. The back of the $5 bill will also change to "depict civil rights leaders," while the front will keep the image of Abraham Lincoln. Leaders of the women's suffrage movement will appear on the back of the $10 bill.


Last summer, Lew announced that he was considering replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman. Not everyone was pleased. Hamilton, a founding father of the United States, helped establish the financial system that endures to this day. He also founded the United States Coast Guard and the New York Post newspaper. And, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda's retelling of Hamilton's story in the Broadway smash hit (with tickets selling at $600 a pop), the man is more popular now than ever. Politico reports that Miranda directly lobbied Lew earlier this year in favor of Hamilton.

Lew reportedly told Miranda that he would be "very happy" with the new plan.

"We're going to spend a lot of time this summer listening to people," Lew said after his announcement last summer.

The idea of replacing Jackson with Tubman on the $20 by 2020 started with an online petition. Advocates of the idea liked its inherent symbolism — and 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Martha Washington, the country's first First Lady featured on paper currency in the 1800s, the last time a woman has appeared on US paper currency.

Jackson owned a property known as the Hermitage in Tennessee, a 1,000-acre cotton plantation that relied entirely on slave labor. At one point, Jackson reportedly owned almost 150 slaves.

Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, and was regularly beaten and whipped by her slave masters. She escaped, and later made 13 separate missions to rescue scores of enslaved families, helping them reach the free Northern states. She was also an active participant in the women's suffrage movement.

Lew initially said that changing the $20 note wouldn't be possible because paper bills are regularly updated in rotation, and the $10 note was next due for an upgrade. He told Politico last July that the Treasury was looking into ways to mollify critics.

Under federal law, no living person can appear on a bill, and George Washington has to stay on the $1.