The new $20 bill will be imbued with South Carolina’s past — with images of Harriet Tubman, who participated in one of the largest slave emancipations in state history, and Andrew Jackson, the controversial president whose world view was shaped by his upbringing here.
The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that Tubman’s portrait will be featured on the front of the $20 note, marking a milestone for U.S. currency: She will be the first African-American on the nation’s paper money and the first woman in a century.
The back of the bill will carry the image of Jackson, the seventh president and a slave owner who grew up near the North Carolina border.
Tubman, a former slave who dedicated her life to shepherding slaves to freedom, is best known as the leader of the Underground Railroad, traveling into the South to ferry more than 300 people into the free states and Canada. But perhaps one of her most ambitious undertakings came amid the Civil War in South Carolina, where she had worked as a nurse and intelligence operative.
Tubman’s work in the Lowcountry isn’t well-documented, but she was closely involved in a Union night raid in June 1863, boarding one of the gunboats that sailed up the Combahee River near Yemassee to free slaves from the rice fields along its banks.
More than 700 climbed aboard the vessels, said Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist at Brockington and Associates in Charleston. Many of them heard Tubman sing as they boarded, her effort to calm their nerves in what apparently was a chaotic night.
“She wasn’t James Bond, she was ‘M,’” said Jeff Grigg, president of the Colleton County Historical and Preservation Society, referring to the fictional head of British intelligence in the Bond spy books and films.
The rice plantations have long since fallen, replaced by marsh, forest and U.S. Highway 17. A bridge along the highway is named for Tubman, a reminder of what is thought to be one of South Carolina’s largest emancipations efforts.
Jackson represents another era in Palmetto State history. He spent his boyhood in Lancaster and grew up amid armed conflict. He was captured as a teenager during the Revolutionary War, and he was orphaned when his brothers and mother were killed by disease and heat.
The upbringing instilled in him a deep hatred for the British that led him to believe in the value of a strong central government to protect the country, said Laura Ledford, interpreter at Andrew Jackson State Park in Lancaster.
It resulted in a controversial presidency: Jackson was embroiled in the so-called “nullification crisis” over whether South Carolina could nullify a tariff, and he forced Native Americans off their land in what’s now known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Nation, which was removed from its land, supported the British during the revolution, Ledford said.
Jackson’s image has been featured on the front of the $20 bill since 1928.
Various groups have been campaigning to get a woman honored on the nation’s paper currency — an all-male domain for more than a century.
The last woman featured on U.S. paper money was Martha Washington, who was on a dollar silver certificate from 1891 to 1896. The only other woman ever featured on U.S. paper money was Pocahontas, from 1865 to 1869. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea are on dollar coins.
“I’m just used to seeing his face,” said Aliahya Sellers, a College of Charleston student. “A man’s face, a white man’s face, and then to change it to a woman’s face, a black woman’s face — that’s going to be taking some getting used to.”
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew also settled the backlash that had erupted after he announced an initial plan to remove Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary, from the $10 bill in order to honor a woman. Hamilton will remain on the note, Lew said.
Instead, the Treasury building on the back of the $10 note will be replaced with leaders of the suffrage movement to give women the right to vote, including Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.
The $5 bill will also undergo change. The illustration of the Lincoln Memorial on the back will be redesigned to honor “events at the Lincoln Memorial that helped to shape our history and our democracy.” The new image will include civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson.
Allison Prang and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
An online group, Women on 20s, said it was encouraged that Lew was responding to its campaign to replace Jackson with a woman. But it said it would not be satisfied unless Lew also committed to issuing the new $20 bill at the same time that the redesigned $10 bill is scheduled to be issued in 2020.
The $10 bill is the next note on Treasury’s redesign calendar, and it aims introduce updated protections against counterfeiting. That redesign was scheduled to be unveiled in 2020, which marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Lew had often cited that connection as a reason to put a woman on the $10 bill.
However, the effort ran into strong objections from supporters of Hamilton, who is enjoying renewed pop culture interest with the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
That pushed the currency change headed for Hamilton to Jackson instead. But whether Jackson would have been upset is another question.
Jackson, after all, opposed the creation of a central bank, and he was wary of using paper money instead of gold and silver.
“He probably would’ve complained about being on it anyway,” Ledford said.