Berry: Harriet Tubman isn’t the first black woman to appear on currency in the U.S.


Daina Ramey Berry writes:

“As a scholar of American slavery and someone who’s published books and taught courses on black women in America for nearly twenty years, I can’t separate my feelings about Tubman’s ascension to the $20 from the historical context. First, Tubman: Most Americans know her story (or parts of it), and she is often one of the few enslaved women people can name. She is an icon and a figure who facilitated revolutionary change. Born into slavery and relegated as property, Tubman defied the commodification of her personhood by liberating herself and many others. Because of her vast knowledge of the geography and topography of several states, she served as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. Her story is one of perseverance, of bravery, of survival, and it highlights the importance of liberty.

“Harriet Tubman will be the first African American (male or female) to appear on federally sanctioned currency, but she is not the first enslaved person to appear on paper money circulated in the United States. Before the 1860s, it was common for banks to issue their own notes embellished with images that served as anti-counterfeit devices. Several bills printed in Confederate states during the Civil War featured sketches of enslaved people. These images depict enslaved people in captivity with plantation tools and crops in their hands. The American Bank Note Company and Bald, Cousland & Company also issued a series of vignettes intended for print currency that contained scenes of draymen and field hands breaking hemp, hauling sugar cane, tapping sap from large trees, and picking cotton. The original engravings remain at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Library of Congress, but we cannot tell if they ever appeared on any bank notes. It’s likely these particular vignettes did not—but the fact that the images were created in the first place indicates how central slavery was to America’s identity in the 19th century…”

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