How Harriet Tubman Worked

Harriet Tubman's Legacy

Harriet Tubman Harriet Tubman
In 2016, the Obama Administration announced that Harriet Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, though the current Trump Administration has yet to follow through on the commitment. Library of Congress

After Tubman was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, her fame continued to grow. During World War II, after a successful war bond drive by the National Council of Negro Women, a Liberty ship was christened the SS Harriet Tubman in her honor [source: Larson]. She became the subject of numerous biographies and children's books, and the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged was recognized as a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Four years later, she became the first African-American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp [source: Larson].

In 2016, the Obama Administration went a step further, as then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson — a slaveholder — on the $20 bill. Some observers welcomed that move as a sign of the nation's progress. "It speaks volumes that we can recognize [Tubman] as this great American hero and image of what it means to be American," Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history and African-American studies at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times.

Trump Administration Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declined to commit to putting Tubman on the $20 bill — "Right now, we've got a lot more important issues to focus on," he told CNBC in August 2017. But the resulting controversy may only add to the legend of Harriet Tubman.

Though she wasn't a leader of the women's suffrage movement in her lifetime, she's increasingly seen as a feminist icon, a woman who persisted at a time when doing so meant risking her life and freedom. As the headline of a 2017 opinion piece by Washington Post writer DeNeen L. Brown proclaimed: "Whether she's on the $20 bill or not, Harriet Tubman made men pay for underestimating her."

And though Tubman never had children, descendants of the family members she led to freedom still cherish her legacy. "I think of her as a humanist," Tubman's great-great grand-niece Tina Wyatt told a TV interviewer in 2017. "She wanted to uplift other people and make life good for them."

Author's Note: How Harriet Tubman Worked

Before I took on this assignment, I knew about Harriet Tubman mostly only in the context of the Underground Railroad. It was uplifting to learn about her courageous work as a Union spy during the Civil War, and about her tireless efforts afterward to help the poor and the elderly. To me, her story really exemplifies the true greatness of America — the ordinary people who, throughout our history, have taken it upon themselves to fight against injustice and work for the good of us all.

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