Why Harriet Tubman Matters, Now More Than Ever

Last week I ordered an item from etsy, an online store that sells unique handmade items from around the world. It wasn’t jewelry. It wasn’t a throw pillow. It wasn’t a Christmas wreath.

Nope. I spent $12.50 on a self-inking Harriet Tubman money stamp. It’s designed to cover Andrew Jackson’s face on the twenty-dollar bill with the face of Harriet Tubman. The stamp’s been on the market since May, when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that a redesigned bill—replacing Jackson with Tubman, who was to be the first African-American featured on federally sanctioned currency–wouldn’t be released in 2020 as originally planned. Because of “security issues,” the Tubman bill likely won’t be in circulation until at least 2028.

After I saw “Harriet,” the wonderful biopic about slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, I knew the time was right to order a money stamp of my own.

Born on a Maryland plantation sometime around 1820, Harriet Tubman was headstrong and defiant even as a child. Hoping to settle her down by wearing her out, Harriet’s master moved her from domestic work to punishing labor in the fields. Little did he know that this forced physical fitness and closeness with nature would aid Harriet in years to come.

At age 13, Harriet was struck in the head by a two-pound anvil thrown by an angry overseer. She suffered seizures for the rest of her life. Instead of bemoaning this fate, Harriet became convinced God was speaking to her, offering guidance and protection, during her seizures. In 1849 she escaped the plantation, traveling 90 miles by foot to the Pennsylvania border and freedom.

Rather than enjoy her strange and wonderful new life in Philadelphia, Harriet was determined to return home to rescue her still-enslaved family and friends. She dedicated the next decade to freeing her people from bondage. Harriet returned to Maryland more than a dozen times, often disguised as a man (“Moses”), an old woman or a middle-class free black woman. She became one of the most famous and successful conductors on the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Estimates are that she helped lead more than 70 slaves to freedom.

Harriet’s work didn’t stop there. During the Civil War, she served for a short time as a cook and nurse in the Union army. But daring was in her blood, and she soon became an armed scout and spy. In 1863, during the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, Harriet and the 2nd Regiment Volunteer Infantry destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of Confederate supplies and freed almost 800 people from slavery.

In her later years, she dedicated her life to helping freed slaves and to the cause of women’s suffrage. Harriet Tubman died in 1913.

It seemed fitting that in 2020, the year we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment (which gave women the right to vote) and Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday, she would replace Andrew Jackson, slave-holder and architect of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, on the twenty dollar bill. But it was not to be. On the campaign trail in 2016, candidate Donald Trump denounced the proposed change as “pure political correctness.” His election sealed the deal. Andrew Jackson’s face would remain on the twenty indefinitely.

But not on any twenties that wind up in my hands. My money stamp arrived in the mail a couple of days ago and I quickly got busy using it. As long as I don’t hide or alter any letters or numbers, it’s perfectly legal to cover Old Hickory’s face with Harriet’s and to use my new-and-improved bills as legal tender.

In a time when too many folks are still waving the Confederate flag and dressing up like KKK members for Halloween, it’s one more little way I can resist.

(November 24, 2019)