In 2015, the Secretary of the Treasury announced that a woman would be featured on U.S. paper currency for the first time. Even though several women were under consideration, it was immediately clear who it should be — Harriet Tubman.
Few American men or women can claim a life as heroic as Tubman’s. Born a slave in Maryland, badly injured as a child when a slavemaster struck her in the head with a metal weight, at age 27 she made her escape to Philadelphia. That alone took courage enough, but she promptly turned around and snuck back into Maryland to bring out members of her family. The year was 1849.
One year later, a Buffalonian was president: Millard Fillmore. Seeking to head off the bloodshed of a civil war, Fillmore engineered a compromise meant to satisfy both North and South. Part of that compromise was his signing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – a law that made it a crime for any American to aid an escaped slave, or to impede the return of a slaveholder’s “property.” It outraged northerners, especially those who for years had helped fugitive slaves along the informal Underground Railroad that led to places like Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lewiston, Fredonia, Rochester, and Syracuse.
The new law made Tubman’s already difficult mission even harder. Now she had to get the slaves she snuck out of Maryland all the way to Canada. It was dangerous work. She carried a gun, wore disguises, and worked out a series of codes to avoid detection. Though Tubman was only five feet tall and illiterate, she was smart, brave, and tough.
On at least one trip, Tubman made the Underground Railroad a literal one. In November 1856 she guided four escaped slaves via train over the one-year-old Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, which spanned the gorge near where today’s Rainbow Bridge stands. One of the fugitives was named Josiah Bailey. In her memoirs, dictated to Sarah H. Bradford a dozen years later, Tubman told what happened as the train crossed the bridge to Canada:
Joe sat still, with his head upon his hand.
“Joe, come look at de Falls! Joe, you fool you, come see de Falls! It’s your last chance.” But Joe sat still and never raised his head. At length Harriet knew by the rise in the center of the bridge, and the descent on the other side, that they had crossed “the line.” She sprang across to Joe’s seat, shook him with all her might, and shouted, “Joe, you’ve shook de lion’s paw!” Joe did not know what she meant.
“Joe, you’re free!,” shouted Harriet.
Then Joe’s head went up, he raised his hands on high, and his face, streaming with tears, to heaven, and broke out in loud and thrilling tones:
“Glory to God and Jesus too,
One more soul is safe;
Oh, go and carry de news,
One more soul got safe.”
“Joe, come and look at the falls!” called Harriet.
“Glory to God and Jesus too,
One more soul got safe.”
...was all the answer. The cars stopped on the other side. Joe’s feet were the first to touch British soil, after those of the conductor.
Loud roared the waters of Niagara, but louder still ascended the anthem of praise from the overflowing heart of the freeman.
“The ladies and gentlemen gathered round him,” said Harriet, “till I couldn’t see Joe for the crowd, only I heard ‘Glory to God and Jesus too!’ louder than ever.”*
Tubman conducted those now free black men and women to St. Catharines, which for decades had given shelter to escaped slaves from the U.S. (including some of her brothers and their families, whom she’d guided to safety). Her St. Catharines headquarters was Salem Chapel on Geneva and North Streets; it was there that she met John Brown before his violent raid on Harper’s Ferry.
In all, Tubman made an estimated 13 secret trips to Maryland and personally led 60 to 70 slaves to freedom, but her adventures were far from over. When the Civil War broke out, she served the Union Army as a nurse, as a scout and, on one occasion, led troops on an amphibious assault to burn plantations in South Carolina. After the war, she settled in the small, prosperous Finger Lakes city of Auburn, where she was a friend and confidante of William H. Seward, the Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
Despite her achievements and the abolition of slavery, Tubman suffered the indignities common to black life in America – she was once roughed up on a train to New York for refusing a conductor’s order to give up her seat, and she was denied a pension for her Civil War service until 1899. But she continued to speak out for civil rights, and later, for women’s suffrage and women’s rights.
Unlike many black heroes of the Civil War era, Tubman remained famous throughout her long life. She finally died in 1913, near her 91st birthday, and was buried with military honors in Auburn.
So no, it was no surprise when the Treasury Department announced last April that Tubman’s portrait would start appearing on the $20 bill in 2020, making her the first woman — and the first person of color — to be so honored. A new generation will be reminded of her exploits every time they look in their wallets.
Indeed, Harriet Tubman has already become part of everyday discourse. Soon after the Treasury Department made its announcement, President Obama was doing shtick at the annual comedy show that is the White House Correspondents Dinner.
“If this material goes well, I’m going to use it at Goldman Sachs next year,” Obama said, as the audience laughed. “Earn me some serious Tubmans.”
In a few years, Americans will be using that phrase a lot.
* Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, by Sarah H. Bradford, Auburn, N.Y., 1869.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Harriet Tubman: Verneice Turner
Josiah Bailey: Donald Capers
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Avery Schneider (WBFO)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839), performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)