Editorial: From Tubman to Frances Perkins (someday), we get our money’s worth

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With his signature, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has put front and center a name we all heard in grade school (back when it was called grade school).

Harriet Tubman — humble ex-slave and brave helper to the vulnerable — will, some years from now, take over Andrew Jackson’s spot on the twenty-dollar bill. The nation’s seventh president, who in keeping with his period and station was a slaveowner, will bow out to the back of the bill.

Harriet Tubman in 1895

Wikimedia Commons

Harriet Tubman in 1895

We greeted the announcement last week with wonder and appreciation. Here was something different coming out of the halls of Washington, where it seems today everything’s an argument and the long view gets short shrift. And certainly, here was something different coming onto our currency.

Joining the greats on our bills and coins — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others — will be an illiterate black woman in undistinguished clothes and countenance, who was also great.

Welcoming Harriet Tubman into the fold is a breathtaking indication of a nation coming closer to the ideal it wants for itself: a country that highly values freedom, individuality, work and human dignity.

The decision adds diversity, surely one of the secrets of our strength.

Including her, too, adds honesty to our currency. It helps color in the corners of the picture of the treasured journey of our nation. The way has not always been easy but our young country is ever guided forward by the extraordinary tenets of its founding.

This good woman’s story, it seems to us, becomes more relevant and more wondrous the older we get. It takes years of living to appreciate the power of sheer guts, rightful purpose and a strong, stubborn heart.

Harriet Tubman, born in Maryland around 1822, escaped slavery and helped others whose plight she understood find freedom as well. “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” biographer Catherine Clinton quotes her as telling an audience years later.

She was an armed scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and also aided the women’s suffrage movement. Although her birth year is unclear, she crossed her 90th birthday, historians believe, dying in 1913 in Auburn, N.Y., at a home for elderly African-Americans that she had helped to establish.

Over a long life, that is to say, Harriet Tubman ignored the walls around her that did not make sense. Uncomplaining, she spent her love and skill where she could and to the best of her ability, and helped effect change in a nation that needed the likes of her, and always will.

As cash passes from hand to hand, people will catch glimpses of a portrait that in every way stands out — including that Tubman’s image might remind us most of ourselves. Few can achieve high office, but we can all hope to make the best of our circumstances in service of others and of a better world.

It is unclear whether Tubman was ever in Worcester, but it is possible she visited or was familiar with our city’s Underground Railroad refuges, including Liberty Farm. In any case, her selection is an opportunity for area residents to deepen their appreciation for local lore and landmarks related to black history.

For that matter, the news is a chance to cast thoughts back across the past, and reflect how all kinds of others have done their part to make us who we are.

Harriet Tubman’s is about as solid an American name, and American legacy, as they come. But it was also heartening to read in various sources over the last several months, including here (written when change was considered for the $10 bill rather than the $20) and here, that Frances Perkins was among women considered worthy of gracing the twenty.

Perkins, a champion of workers’ rights who became Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt — the first woman to hold a cabinet post — spent formative years in Worcester. She attended Classical High School, which was then largely male, and became a respected social reformer.

Worcester also, of course, boasts connections to many other interesting women, including Elizabeth Bishop, Dorothea Dix and Abby Kelley Foster.

Harriet Tubman’s selection resounds in terms of simplicity, humanity, pain and triumph. Her toughness deserves our affection, and the truths of her timeline need to be faced far into the future.

We hope the Treasury Department will expedite the change to the twenty. Patience might have been a virtue in Tubman’s time, but no longer.

We touch history when we handle our currency. There’s great value in brushing up on that history — and in once in a while touching up the items we carry in our pockets and wallets that do their part to tell it.

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