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The Treasury Department announced yesterday that Harriet Tubman will soon become the first African-American to be on the front of a currency bill, and the first woman on U.S. currency in a century.
Tubman, who's best known for her work as an abolitionist, and a so-called conductor on the Underground Railroad, will replace President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner and anti-abolitionist, on the front of the $20.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks to Robert Watson, assistant professor of history at Hampton University, about Tubman and the history of the Underground Railroad.
Interview Highlights: Robert Watson
What do we know about when and how the Underground Railroad came into being?
“We know that the Underground Railroad came into being around 1831, that was shortly after the steam railroads in the United States were built and as a consequence of the railroads coming into the United States, slaves in the early years of the 19th century began to escape and go north. The first time you hear actually, when a slave named Tice Davis escaped from his Kentucky owner and he got across the Ohio River, and with his owners in hot pursuit. They eventually lost all trace off him once he crossed the Ohio River, and the owners who were chasing him said, ‘he must have gone off an underground road.’”
Did something like the Underground Railroad exist before the 1830s?
“Oh yes, yes as a matter of fact, in 1786 George Washington complained about a slave that he said escaped because of a society of Quakers. So yes, it definitely exists before the 1830s.”
How accurate are modern interpretations of the Underground Railroads - hidden trapdoors and moving under cover of darkness.
“I think that’s fairly accurate based upon all of the research that I have seen. You have those people, both whites and blacks, who know that by assisting these people anywhere whether it was an attic, underbrush, letting them ride across a river in flat boats that these people were in fact taking their own lives and endangering their own families.”
How many ‘Harriet Tubmans’ were there?
“You could argue that there were hundreds of Harriet Tubmans, but there was only one real Harriet Tubman in terms of the one who would ultimately receive the kind of acclaim and notoriety as she did. She was definitely well known, but there were others.”
Why was she worthy of such acclaim?
“I believe, in large part, because of how she came to be a conductor of the Underground Railroad. She was born Araminta Ross, as opposed to Harriet Tubman, around 1822, and her story about how her family was split up and she eventually escaped, makes her story, I think, unique in that she was one who felt that she should reach back and rescue people who had been in the same situation that she had, and the fact that she was not just a conductor of the Underground Railroad, she was also a spy during the Civil War and you really don’t find a lot of people of that era, even though they were conductors, who attained the same kind of level of respect as she did.”
On the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, and sharing it with Andrew Jackson
“I think its past time to have an African-American on paper money. I’m very happy that the secretary of the Treasury has advanced this idea, because it really does in fact reflect the idea that we as Americans are moving towards a more multicultural society where all the contributions should be acknowledged. So, I’m happy that it’s Harriet Tubman, but it could have very easily been someone else. The flipside though is that I think it should just be her. I don’t think she should have to share the $20 bill with a person whose legacy in our history is well known for having been a slave owner and also responsible for the Trail of Tears. So I’m very happy, but I certainly wish that in the future that some consideration be given to removing Jackson from the back of the $20 bill.”
- Robert Watson, assistant professor of history at Hampton University.
This segment aired on April 21, 2016.
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