Kafer: Harriet Tubman on the $20 is a message America needs right now

The Colorado legislature is back in session; no one’s life, liberty, or property is safe to paraphrase Mark Twain. Meanwhile, the new Biden administration has released a blizzard of controversial and highly partisan executive orders. So much for that “unity” themed inaugural speech. Even the left-leaning New York Times editorial board has said “ease up on the executive actions,” man. As for Congress, they’re busy considering the impeachment of a man no longer in office. If only they could exhibit such passion for say reducing the $27 trillion national debt, managing fire-prone national forests, or getting Iran back to the negotiating table.

Which of these triumphs of absurdity deserves ink this week? The prospects are an embarrassment of riches.

Unfortunately, today’s second-grade lesson about appreciation hit home and this column will instead praise the Biden administration for two actions taken since the inauguration. One is quite minor in the scheme of things; the other, however, is significant and overdue.

First let’s celebrate Major, the Biden’s German shepherd, who moved into the White House last month. Adopted from the Delaware Humane Society three years ago, he is the first shelter dog to live there. He’s a beautiful dog and his presence sends a message about the value of animals adopted from shelters. More than 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats enter U.S. shelters every year according to the Humane Society of the United States. There are only two ways out of a shelter; adoption is the life sparing choice.

The second action is far weightier but also speaks to value. The White House recently announced that the Treasury Department would resume plans launched by the Obama administration in 2016 to redesign the $20 bill. The new $20 will feature American abolitionist Harriet Tubman instead of President Andrew Jackson. During the Trump administration, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delayed the change until 2028. President Trump, a fan of the nation’s 7th president, thought the proposed change was an act of “pure political correctness.” He was wrong. Jackson is an interesting historical character worthy of study but not of admiration. Tubman was an American hero.

Jackson, whose portrait replaced that of Grover Cleveland on the $20 in 1928, was a self-taught lawyer and military hero. Known for his fiery temper, Jackson partook in 100 duels. As president, Jackson was a populist, extolling the virtues of the common man over elites, which is why, no doubt, Trump admires him. In other ways, Jackson was a man of his time, a slave owner and proponent of the institution, and equally bigoted towards Native Americans. During his administration, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act forcing the Cherokee people off their lands east of the Mississippi. More than 4,000 people died while being relocated to what is now the state of Oklahoma.

By contrast, Tubman, exhibited selfless devotion to the welfare of others throughout her life. An escaped slave, she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad to help other slaves escape to the North. Of her bravery, Frederick Douglass once said, “Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people.” During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war. After the war, Tubman continued to help former slaves and the elderly. Tubman donated a piece of her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn, NY where the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged opened five years later.

Tubman will not be the first woman to appear on U.S. legal tender. There are Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony dollars and Helen Keller quarters in circulation. Nor will Tubman be the first non-president on a bill. Ben Franklin $100 bills and Alexander Hamilton $10 bills feature founders who never held that office. Tubman would be the first African American, however.

Placing her portrait on the $20 will honor her extraordinary courage and selflessness during a pivotal moment in history. It also sends a message that the nation values the contributions of black Americans in U.S. history. That message is one that needs hearing. So kudos to the Biden administration for sending it.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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