Artists subvert delay of Harriet Tubman $20 bill

H.G. Smith / Ohio History Connection/MGN Harriet Tubman on an early mock-up of the $20 bill

Although the U.S. Treasury Department delayed the redesigned $20 bill featuring abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the freedom fighter’s determined stare can still be found on bills in a few states—a quiet act of resistance from artists around the country.

In 2017, artist Dano Wall created a stamp of the iconic figure and made it available for 3D printing on Esty, in anticipation of the Obama-era plan to have Tubman replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 redesign.

Announced by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in 2016, the plan was to feature Tubman on the front of the bill, while Jackson, a slave-owner whose controversial legacy also includes the Trail of Tears, would be moved to the back.

The bill was set to be released this year in time for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It would make Tubman the first Black woman featured on official U.S. currency.

But in May of 2019, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that due to “counterfeiting concerns” the $20 note bearing Tubman’s image had to be delayed by six years—basically, until after President Trump is out of office. It should be noted that as a presidential candidate, Trump called the plan to replace Jackson “pure political correctness.” 

The delay brought disappointment but also renewed fervor and interest in the Tubman stamp, which can be superimposed over Jackson’s portrait. Other artists, like New York illustrator Dena Cooper then joined the initiative.

Courtesy of Twitter/@amhistorymuseum The Dano Wall stamped image of Tubman on a $20 bill

Few people dead or alive have lived as storied a life as Tubman. Not content to savor the taste of freedom for herself, the historic abolitionist risked her hard-fought escape from slavery to ensure other enslaved Blacks could taste the same liberation. Although the abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist’s birthdate was never recorded, she died on March 10, 1913, in Auburn, NY at around age 93. Since the 1990s, March 10 has been celebrated as “Harriet Tubman Day” in the U.S.

Even before last year’s Oscar-nominated film about her life, Tubman’s dogged pursuit of freedom has long been admired by many Americans. In 2015, she topped the Women on 20s list of contenders to replace or share the $20 bill.

Those hoping for an official redesign of the $20 bill featuring Tubman will have to look to the future and, in the meantime, be on the lookout for the stamped bill. Although the legality is a bit murky, the longstanding practice of stamping bills is apparently legal as long as half of the bill and numbers or other identifying elements are still legible.

“My goal is to get 5,000 stamps out there,” Wall told the Washington Post. “If there are 5,000 people consistently stamping currency, we could get a significant percent of circulating $20 bills (with the Tubman) stamp, at which point it would be impossible to ignore.”

There are reportedly at least 1,500 Tubman-stamped bills circulating across the country.