U.S. Treasury secretary Jacob Lew recently announced that Harriet Tubman, an African-American escaped slave, and an iconic hero of the Underground Railroad before and during the U.S. Civil War, would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, beginning in 2020. PW caught up with historian, Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown, 2004) to talk about Tubman’s life and times, and why she deserves to be commemorated on the $20 bill.
What was your reaction when treasury secretary Jacob Lew disclosed that reading your biography, Harriet Tubman: Road to Freedom, played a significant role in his decision to select Harriet Tubman for inclusion on the $20 bill?
I was thrilled. I am an academically trained scholar, who had turned to writing biography to reach a larger public—but as the turn of the century approached, Harriet Tubman still seemed relegated to the children’s shelf. So I began work on the first biography of Tubman in over 50 years, never imagining that it could contribute to this kind of national conversation about women’s contributions to the American past, and particularly African American women’s neglected roles.
What led you to decide to research the life of Harriet Tubman?
Harriet Tubman became a controversial figure in the 1990s when politicians bandied about her name in connection with national history standards, and that tone of derision in this debate fired my energy. As a Civil War scholar, I was determined to turn Tubman into a flesh-and-blood actor within her own lifetime, the spy and scout who had made history, and earned a $20 pension from the government. She had put her life in danger for years, engaged in the struggle to overthrow slavery. Imagine my delight that Sojourner Truth will be joining a quartet of suffragists on the steps of the Treasury on the redesign of $10 bill—and Harriet Tubman will be front and center on the twenty. I wrote my own book for young readers, When Harriet Met Sojourner, in 2007.
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SOURCE: Publishers Weekly