Taking Harriet Tubman to Florida

The way I look at it, resisting the efforts of far-right politicians in small ways is better than not resisting those efforts at all.

That’s why I stamped the face of Harriet Tubman over the face of Andrew Jackson on several twenty-dollar bills and, a couple of weeks ago, took them to Florida to spend. Governor Ron DeSantis’s endeavors to block the teaching of “woke” ideas on race and gender in Florida schools were exactly the incentive I needed. My plan was to explain to anyone willing to listen why I think Tubman, escaped slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad, ought to replace slaveholder and Indian foe Andrew Jackson on the twenty.

I started this mission several years ago, when a move was afoot to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 2020 by putting a woman’s picture on folding money, something that had never been done before. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 brought those efforts to a grinding halt. The new president declared that replacing Jackson with Tubman–not only a woman, but a woman of color–was “pure political correctness.”  The good news is that current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently announced that, although creating new paper money is a lengthy and complicated process, the Harriet Tubman twenty is back on track and scheduled to debut in 2030.

Not wanting to wait another several years to share Tubman’s story, I found the self-inking Harriet Tubman money stamp I bought back in 2019 and got busy. Some of my “redesigned” twenties turned out better than others, but I knew the bills were legal tender as long as no letters or numbers had been altered or removed.

I could hardly wait to spend them in the Sunshine State.

It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. The first test was at a Publix, where I placed a jar of peanut butter and two apples in my basket and carried it to the front of the store. Alas, no full-service registers were available. Not wanting to waste a Harriet when I had no store clerk with whom to converse, I used my debit card instead. Ditto at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which doesn’t accept cash at all, but which did afford me the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the biggest alligator I’d ever seen in the wild.

Things took a hopeful turn at Everglades Wonder Garden in Bonita Springs, where visitors can view not only gators (small ones) but also turtles and lots of gorgeous birds and trees and flowers. I handed the lady at the admission counter a twenty and couldn’t wait for the questions that were sure to follow. Nope. She never even glanced at Harriet before turning the bill upside down and putting it in the cash box.

I had nearly lost all hope until my friends and I wandered into a shell store near the beach. I picked out a postcard with a cartoon picture of an alligator and the words GREETINGS FROM FLORIDA on it and got in line at the cash register behind two women holding shark’s tooth necklaces and fly swatters shaped like flip-flops. I removed a Harriet from my purse and sighed loudly. “I sure hope they’ll accept this,” I said.

Both women turned and looked at the twenty and I, of course, jumped at the chance to tell them why I’m such a big fan of Harriet Tubman and—even though I’m from Tennessee— not a fan of Andrew Jackson. They nodded and murmured in a somewhat baffled way. “I’m doing this,” I added, “in protest of Ron DeSantis’s unconscionable efforts to squelch the teaching of historical truths in this state.”

The women smiled. Then one of them asked, “Who’s Ron DeSantis?”

Sadly, I tucked Harriet back into my billfold and paid for the postcard with a handful of change, wondering if my small efforts to resist far-right politicians—in Florida or anywhere else–are completely in vain.

(March 25, 2023)