In 2026, Harriett Tubman may appear on U.S. Bank Notes. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing once hoped to have designs finalized and approved for circulation by 2020. This was announced in 2016. Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets. She was a slave. She escaped after a flogging at a time when people like Tubman were considered equivalent to and used as currency or investment in the early American economy. She will therefore represent the first identifiable woman on paper currency who was herself once a currency.
Not so long ago the Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Aetna insured or dealt in transactions involving slave insurance, seizing slaves from their owners for default on payments. Women have been featured on coins around the world from time immemorial. However, they never appeared on banknotes until the 17th century – about 700 years after the first paper money began circulating in China. Depictions have included symbolic figures like Britannia and national personifications of mythical goddesses, allegorical images, unnamed citizens, historical individuals and rulers like Warrior Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire in ancient Syria, Britain’s Queen Victoria, Russia’s Catherine the Great and Jamaica’s Queen Nanny of the Maroons who led a resistance of escaped African slaves in a triumphant insurgency against the British in the 18th century.
Harriet Tubman was one of the few slave women to escape. Using her keen intelligence and deep faith, combined with a unique set of survival skills, Tubman navigated some of the most dangerous terrain. Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman survived an appalling childhood. After she was almost killed by a blow to her head, Tubman was determined to escape. Knowing that her master’s widow planned to sell her, she was faced with her own Sophie’s Choice: be sold as a slave or escape, leaving behind her family, including her husband John. She chose freedom in the Northern states. Kayne West, a modern-day warrior fighting Twitter trolls and assorted media, suggested that Harriot is a nostalgic icon that anchors our lives on the moorings of slavery. He argued for the elevation of contemporary motifs like Michael Jordan. What he missed in Tubman is that every single one of us is called to be a king, a queen, or a hero in our ordinary lives. We don’t build a statue to worship it on a pedestal or paint the image of an exceptional life to mount it in a gilt frame. We elevate the ordinary to remind ourselves of what is possible in our own. Nicki Minaj – the Barbie Dreams rapper- joined the conversation. In retrospect, she lamented- ‘I am the new Harriet Tubman.’ This deep identification may have to do with escaping life on Bournes Rd., in St James to find her future in the North and become an American Goddess. Both Harriet and Niki returned home to rescue those they left behind.
While Tubman’s nomination for depiction on the US$10 banknote is historic, she is not the first woman – either mythical or actual – to appear on US banknotes. The first non-mythical, historical woman to appear on any paper currency within the present borders of the U.S. was not on a U.S. bill but rather on Confederate money: ‘Queen of the Confederacy’, Lucy Holcombe Pickens of South Carolina. She was portrayed on Confederate $1 bills of 1862 and 1863 and the $100 bill of 1862 through 1864. In the 1850s and 1860s, slaves were illustrated on private banknotes on Confederate paper currency. A 1861 Confederate States of America $10 bill depicted a slave picking cotton in a field. During the Carter administration, Azie Taylor Morton became the first and only African-American to serve as U.S. Treasurer. As such, her signature graced all currency issued during her tenure. In 2015, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew proposed the $10 was due for redesign and one design consideration would be to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 with the image of Tubman.
Hamilton was born January 11th, 1755 in Charlestown, next to the old slave market in a stone and wooden house on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. He was raised in St. Croix and Barbados where, from some accounts, his mother allegedly visited regularly. After migrating to New York, Hamilton attended several preparatory academies, after which he enrolled in King’s College, which is now known as Columbia. In 1776, he dropped out of King’s College and immersed himself in politics. During the Revolutionary War, he became Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington. Hamilton was a founding father of the U.S. central banking system and the first national bank. These two issues are regularly raised in defence of his prominent position on bank notes since he was never a U.S. President and was born on the island of Nevis. An alternative proposal was to replace President Jackson who appears on the $20 for many reasons including the 1838 and 1839 Caravan of Tears that forced the Cherokee to walk to Oklahoma. The last banknote the U.S. redesigned was the $100 bill, after the 9/11 atrocities. The theme of that revision was ‘freedom.’ Today, the extension of constitutional rights and protections to people once ignored or excluded like Tubman continues as the U.S. evolves to a more inclusive understanding of ‘We the People…’