CoinWeek Podcast #146: Harriet Tubman Considered

After a year-long public campaign to redesign the $20 bill, Obama Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that a portrait of Civil Rights pioneer Harriet Tubman would replace the long-serving portrait of controversial president Andrew Jackson as part of the government’s observation of the centennial of Woman’s Suffrage.

The Trump administration took a different position and decided not to follow through with the previous administration’s plans. In 2021, Andrew Jackson remains on the $20 Federal Reserve Note, and proposals to honor Tubman, numismatically, have taken a different form.

Lost in the politics of it all is a woman whose impact on the American experiment went far beyond her involvement with the Underground Railroad. In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, we talk to Karen V. Hill, President and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home. Karen has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy to sharing Tubman’s story and was instrumental in the Treasury Department’s quest to locate a portrait of Harriet to use on the proposed $20 bill.

We pay proper tribute to this great American next, on the CoinWeek Podcast.

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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Ms. Hill:
 

Charles Morgan: Hi, Karen. Thanks for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Karen V. Hill: Oh, pleased to be with you.

Charles: I’m excited to have the opportunity to talk to you today. This past year, we have celebrated the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage. Last summer, the United States Mint marked the occasion with the release of a commemorative coin and medal, a project that you are involved with as a member of the commission to celebrate this centennial. I learned by reading the biographies of each of the members that you are the President and CEO of the Harriet Tubman Home, which is an organization that supports research into Harriet Tubman, and her life as well as promotes her legacy to a new generation of Americans.

As 2020 was the scheduled release date for the proposed Harriet Tubman note, and that release was at the very least postponed, we’ll have to wait and see what the Treasury decides to do during the Biden administration. I wanted to have you on to talk about Harriet and why she’s a good candidate for commemoration on American coins or currency.

Karen: Harriet Tubman began bringing people, freedom seekers from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to the North beginning in 1849, so that predates the Civil War, but it was when– and these folk were mostly her family and close friends. It was when they were being threatened with being sold deeper into slavery. So, she made up her mind to have these campaigns. I think what is laudable about what she did, as well as being courageous, that’s a given, is that Harriet Tubman just raised all of the money that was necessary to finance her freedom campaigns, for train tickets, to clothe and feed the people who she was bringing out of the South, out of slavery, to the North.

She ultimately decided to reside–after going to Philadelphia, to Delaware, to New Jersey, and up through St. Catharines in Canada, she decided to reside in Auburn, New York, which is where we have the Harriet Tubman Home, which I hope everybody will come and see. It’s 32 acres. It’s the actual acreage that belonged to Harriet Tubman. The historical building’s on the property and we give a great tour to let you know how she used the land and the buildings to bring you back to that time between the latter half of the 1800s into the early 1900s.

Tubman decided to reside in Central New York, I believe, because it was a real hotbed for the abolitionist movement. Auburn is about a 15-minute drive from Seneca Falls, which is the birthplace for the women’s rights movement. This part of New York State was extraordinarily progressive; not without its faults, but extraordinarily progressive.

Charles: I think people should realize that at this time, Harriet Tubman was in her 20s.

Karen: She’s a young woman. She’s a small, diminutive young woman who as a teen was hit by an object that was slated for someone who was trying to escape from their slave master, and it hit her, and it caused her forever to have these epileptic seizures. During those seizures, she said that that’s when she would commune with God, that she just saw things much clearer, and that God really had given her the mandate to seek her own freedom and to bring others to freedom. These seizures continued throughout the remainder of her life, and it was at those points when Harriet had real clarity.

She settled in Auburn. It’s important for your listeners to know that about a mile and a half up the road is where William and Frances Seward lived. As you know, Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State. He challenged him in the debate for the Republican nomination. He fiercely believed in the abolition of slavery. He was Lincoln’s fiercest rival. The Sewards befriended Tubman. She became a very good friend of the Seward family. They helped to facilitate her arrangements and bought her first piece of acreage. Then the second piece of acreage that she bought, she bought through an auction, and together they became 32 acres of land. On that land today, we have a brick residence, the residence where Tubman lived. We have the home for the aged where Tubman cared for the indigent negro, who was now a senior but who was prohibited to be housed in the home for the aged that existed in Auburn, New York. So, she created a series of cottages, which became the home for the aged, and one of those cottages remains today.

On the property are the ruins of the John Brown Hall. John Brown was one of her closest and dearest friends. She was actually slated to be with John Brown on that campaign at Harpers Ferry, but they kept changing the date and Tubman actually fell ill and that’s the only reason she wasn’t at Harpers Ferry.

Charles: Let’s talk about Harriet’s role in the Civil War, and contextualize a little bit about the Civil War. To me, the Civil War had a religious aspect to it. The American mythos that has been built up over the years about the Civil War shows to me that the war was bathed in religious symbolism. The war of brother against brother reminds us of that blood feud between Cain and Abel. The song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a major song in a public space during the Civil War, is steeped in religious imagery. The motto “In God We Trust” becomes a meaningful public sentiment bearing witness to the power of providence in the hope that it would come and rescue the union. Even Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is only fully understood through the lens of religiosity. The South for its part worshiped from the same Bible and felt that in its scriptures they had a right to maintain chattel slavery. They were wrong, obviously, in this interpretation, but Harriet being a deeply religious person and taking a position on the side of the Union does not surprise me.

Karen: Yes. What I can say about Harriet and the Civil War, she felt clearly that the cause of freedom was an important reason for the war to be fought, to do away with the institution of slavery. She felt that she could do her part. I think what’s important for people to pick up here is that this is after she has completed between nine and 13 missions back and to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and bringing people to the North so that they would be free. She could have easily rested on her laurels then, but she said no, she needed to take up the cause of the war.

During the war, she served as a nurse, a spy, and a scout. I’ve heard many people in the military talk about how she was one of the most adept spies this country has ever had. Because she was so diminutive, because she appeared to be not so knowledgeable, people just ignored her, quite frankly, and she’d be able to pick up important clues about what was about to happen in the war. What’s most significant is that Harriet, along the Combahee River in South Carolina, she and I think eight other soldiers helped to free 750 slaves on the Combahee River. It was a glorious moment. It was also because the Union Army of the North was hoping that a sizable portion of those newly freed individuals would join the Union cause. That feat of her freeing 750 slaves is one that military historians often cite, and actually, Colonel Montgomery was cited as saying that none was more heroic than Harriet.

What led Harriet to do this? She had several basic tenets that guided her throughout her entire life.

Faith, family, community, freedom, social justice, self-determination. Those are the principal tenets that really connected with her core values. Freedom was among them, faith was among them. Those are the things that guided her in the Civil War. Now, she returned to Auburn after the war. You would say, okay, she has personally helped to free over 70 people through her nine to 13 campaigns bringing people from slavery to freedom. She’s gone and fought in the Civil War and done heroic acts, so now she can come home and rest. Now, that’s not what Harriet did. Her spirit led her in a couple of different directions.

One, Harriet continued throughout her entire life to seek God in everything that she did. She was known to have visited a lot of societies or religious denominations to see where she fit. She ultimately decided that the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which is known throughout history as the Freedom Church… it is the church where Frederick Douglass gained his preaching credentials at the AME Zion Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The Freedom Church, which believes in social justice, was the principal church where Harriet Tubman took up her membership. She was very active in her local church.

She knew that she wanted to help others, always being a servant leader. On her property in Auburn, she had a kiln that fired the bricks. If you ever come to Auburn, you’ll see tremendous, majestic homes, and those homes were built with bricks that were fired on Tubman’s property, so she was an entrepreneur. As I said earlier, she had the home for the aged because she felt that the indigent negro, the former slave, ought to be able to age in dignity and grace. She had on the property that John Brown Hall, an infirmary because she felt that everyone, black or white, who needed healthcare needed to have access to free healthcare. When I look at today’s society, and I see we’re still grappling with how we treat the elderly and how we deal with making sure that people are housed in dignity and grace, and how complicated that is, particularly in this pandemic, I think of how Harriet was way ahead of her time.

We have approximately 72,000 artifacts in our collection, many of them from the ruins of the John Brown Hall, the infirmary, which gives us great insight into the types of medicines that were just sent out frequently and to whom. We do have that level of documentation.

Harriet wasn’t photographed very much when she was a younger woman, when she was bringing people up out of Maryland and to the North, as opposed to Frederick Douglass, who was photographed literally at every event, every occasion when he spoke for the cause of freedom. So, about five years ago–four years ago–we uncovered, or we authenticated, a small photograph of the young Harriet. That was a rare occasion to see a picture of the young Harriet. It is now jointly owned by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture. But we at the Harriet Tubman Home, we authenticated that particular photograph that everybody uses. Also around the same time, there was a lot of interest in having a woman on currency, because the time has come for that to happen. We had visitation by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, from the Department of the Treasury, and they came to the Auburn site, and we just shared with them our artifacts and everything that we possibly could and informed them about the life of Harriet Tubman. We’ve had a couple of subsequent meetings. The image of Harriet on the $20 banknote was well underway when it was stalled in the last couple of years, and I know that had asked for an IG investigation, but the last time I checked, there had not been a determination as to what caused the stalling of the further processing or development of this $20 bill.

This banknote, I was particularly excited about, because it was going to be the first tactile piece of paper currency, so that those persons who are legally blind, or blind, or have a visual impairment would be able to decipher that banknote. That is in keeping with the values of Harriet Tubman because she was very much a part of the community that had a disability, and she worked all her life to overcome that. I don’t see the banknotes as going away. If you recall, what led to Tubman being on the banknote were two different campaigns. One, a campaign by the people where you were able to literally go online and register your support for– there was a list of women in terms of who should be on the $20 banknote, and Harriet definitely triumphs in that. When that happened, the organizers of that Harriet on the $20, I asked, “Well, was it just people in the North who voted for Harriet or people in the urban centers who voted for Harriet?” What was really profound to me is that people from all over the US, every demographic, voted for Harriet to be the woman on the $20 banknote.

Then our immediate past president, Barack Obama, decided to mount another campaign for who should be on the banknote, and that process was championed by Rosie Rios, the former Treasurer of the United States, and we were visited, while she did these stops along the country to hear from people and at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, Treasurer Rios heard from the people regarding how important Harriet Tubman was to the region and to the country and that she would be a great, great addition to our paper currency, to have a woman on that currency.

Furthermore, anything oppositional to that with– I think Andrew Jackson is on that currency now. One of the things to remember is that Andrew Jackson was an owner of slaves, he did not believe in paper currency, he wanted to keep the United States on the gold standard, and many other things that were not keeping with what this currency should depict. At our last visit at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, we were so incredibly pleased with the fact that women were involved in the design of the banknote, women were involved in the engraving of the banknote, and that the process was being essentially supervised by an African American male within the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. I think those are all important touchstones. A big part of my work is to pick that work up. We will see where we are, a large part of my job to keep pushing so that it becomes a reality that she is on the $20 banknote.

At the same time, there was a group that decided to get legislation introduced in the House to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Tubman, and we made scores and scores of corrections to that piece of legislation because it was not well written. But essentially, we’re looking to become the entity– if these gold coins are minted, we’re looking to be the entity that will benefit from the surcharges because one of the things we need to do as a national historical park is to create a world-class visitor center. As I said earlier, we have 72,000 items in our collection, and we need to be able to more fully interpret Tubman’s life. In addition to Tubman’s life, the story of the abolitionist movement and the story of the women’s movement in Central New York.

Charles: I think most high school students, or at least high school students who grew up in my generation, maybe a little younger, may have had the opportunity to see the Civil War film Glory [1990], starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman. One of the things that I have read is that Harriet was involved in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was featured in that film, and even prepared the final meal for Colonel Shaw.

Karen: Well, yeah. People were surprised but not shocked that she took up being a patriot. The bigger picture is, when we talk about Tubman, her belief in the idea of America, belief in the idea of the United States. The Civil War really began to change for the North when the issue of slavery was being confronted with, something that Harriet Tubman knew she needed to be a part of. She had many roles in her service to the Union Army. As I said, she was a spy, a scout, a cook. But most pointedly, most strategically, was her being aside to get the intel and to share that so that the campaigns in the South would indeed be successful.

When Harriet was in her 80s, I believe that was when Colonel Shaw passed away in Boston. Here she is in her 80s, she travels all the way from Auburn to Boston for his funeral services, and that’s not an easy road to traverse today. But she did it because she was fiercely independent. She was a patriot.

She served under him. She understood that he fought for the cause of freedom also. That’s well documented in newspapers from that time.

Then, she came home to Auburn, she let part of her house out for… she took in people who needed rooms, and one of those boarders was Nelson Davis. Nelson Davis also fought in the Union Army, and he came back from the war a very sick man, and Tubman nursed him to health and then they ultimately married. Her first husband, John Tubman, was born a free man, Harriet was born a slave. He did not flee with her when she came north, and he ultimately remarried, so Harriet was free to marry again. It really did affect Harriet the fact that she went back for him and only to find out that he had married again. She was able to marry Nelson Davis. You have two people who fought in the Union Army who fell in love, and her first house was a stick train house and it burned in the fire. Nelson Davis had the masonry skills, and he taught them to Harriet’s nephews and they built her the brick residence that stands there today on the property.

Charles: When we think of Harriet and Frederick Douglass, we usually think of them, at this point in time, the Civil War period, at least for Douglass, I think most of his iconic daguerreotypes are taken during the Civil War. But these iconic Americans were relatively young during the Civil War and they lived full lives after its conclusions. The causes that they stood for do not suddenly yield the results they wished for simply because the War Between the States had ended. They continued to argue for and labor for freedom and equality for the rest of their lives.

Karen: Well, okay, here’s what we know for sure. When Harriet Tubman died, her death, and her funeral was covered by the New York Times. Okay, so that was global. She’s known and heralded not only in the United States but around the world for her fight for the cause of freedom. She wasn’t anyone to place a high value on being upfront, but she placed a very high value on being effective, which is why with the suffragists’ movement, she was able to go into lecture halls and really advocate for the cause of women to gain the right to vote even though that was not going to be extended to her as an African American woman, and it meant that men will begin to have their right to vote taken away from them on a state-by-state basis. She believed in servant leadership, and she believed in a liberation theology – that is, advancing the cause of enfranchisement of women to secure the vote, even though that didn’t initially– wasn’t going to include her because of the racism that existed then and we’re still coping, dealing with it today. But Tubman knew always to do the right thing at the right time.

She’s very much in the realm of what Congressman John Lewis talked about. All the trouble she ever got into was good trouble. If she was confronting someone with a weapon, it was because that person was trying to stand between her and freedom for herself, and for those who were with her. Good trouble. Always expanding what it meant to be an American. She has added immeasurably to the mosaic of America, of what we look like now in this country because she interacted with everyone in the greater Auburn area. She adopted children from one of the centers in the Auburn area. One of the daughters was hard to play with. They have records where other families would adopt children and send them back because they had something wrong with them, or just behavioral issues. Harriet was someone who knew how to cope with someone who had those challenges.

She dealt with people who were food insecure, black and white, and gave them from her vegetable garden, and gave them food from her livestock. She was someone who believed that we’re all better off when we seek to be more human. She’s someone who bore the scars of having been beaten around her neck and on her back. That’s why all photographs of Harriet Tubman, she has a kerchief around her neck to hide the scars. She had those scars, but it didn’t scar her heart. Her heart was still a heart of “What can I do to make things better for everyone?”

Charles: Well, Karen, thank you for taking the time to share with me the story of Harriet Tubman, a great American and someone worthy of our commemoration, and I appreciate what you do to preserve her memory and legacy.

Karen: Oh, thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate it.

Charles: Thanks.


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