21 Apr 2016

First African-American woman on US banknote

1:45 pm on 21 April 2016

An African-American woman is to appear on the American currency for the first time, the United States Treasury has announced.

Anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman will be on new $US20 bill.

The new $US20 featuring Harriet Tubman may look like this. Photo: AFP/Women on 20s

Harriet Tubman will also be the first woman to appear on a US banknote for more than a century.

Ms Tubman was born a slave in 1820 and helped at least 70 people escape slavery. She replaces former President Andrew Jackson who was a slave owner. His image will move to the back of the note.

Leaders from the women's rights movement - Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul - will be pictured on the back of the $10 bill.

The back of the $5 bill - which depicts Abraham Lincoln on the front - will show prominent leaders from US history including singer Marian Anderson, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

The women previously depicted on US bills were former first lady Martha Washington, on the $1 silver certificate from 1891 to 1896, and Native American Pocahontas, in a group photo on the $20 bill from 1865 to 1869.

Harriet Tubman is best known in the United States for her role in smuggling slaves to safety via the Underground Railroad.

But her role in the US civil war was just as remarkable.

She operated as a scout for the Union forces, often behind enemy lines, and most notably guided the dramatic armed raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina in which three gunboats evaded Confederate positions and liberated more than 700 slaves.

"I nebber see such a sight," Ms Tubman said later, and described how slaves laden with children, pigs and chickens had rushed from the fields towards the boats.

"We laughed, an' laughed, an' laughed," she said.

In 1863 this was an extraordinary military role for any woman, let alone for an escaped slave.

It was ironic that Andrew Jackson's image endured on the banknote - not only because the slave-trading president has been pushed to the back of the $20 bill by a freed slave - but also because he regarded the very existence of paper money as a "deep-seated evil".

Ms Tubman won an online poll run by campaign group Women On 20s to put a woman on the currency.

Other potential candidates for the spot included Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights activist Rosa Parks and leader of the Cherokee nation Wilma Mankiller.

The Treasury has dropped plans to remove the image of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of the US financial system, from the $10 bill after facing backlash in part due to the popularity of Broadway musical Hamilton.

Cast members visited the White House and spoke to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in March.

After the meeting, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway show, tweeted that Mr Lew told him he would be "very happy" after they announced changes to the US notes.

The Treasury Department also put out a statement after the meeting that reiterated Mr Lew's "commitment to continue to honour Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill".


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs