(Image shown is one artist’s imagining of the Harriet Tubman banknote.)

Every February, Americans celebrate Presidents Day as well as Black History Month. This seems like an appropriate time to report on the status of the long-planned Harriet Tubman twenty-dollar bill, which will feature the famous black female slave and conductor of the Underground Railroad. Tubman will replace former President and slave owner Andrew Jackson as the “face” on the bill. Last year at this time, we reported on how seldom the United States makes changes to the famous American faces—mostly white men–that appear on its banknotes.

The idea to feature Harriet Tubman on a banknote originated with an 11-year-old girl who sent the suggestion to President Obama in 2014.

In 2016, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew proposed replacing former President Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, making her the first African American woman to appear on U.S. currency.

In 2019, New York Congressman John Katko introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, which (as amended) would require the Treasury Department to “redesign $20 Federal reserve notes printed after December 31, 2020, [to] bear the likeness of Harriet Tubman.”  That “deadline” has come and gone, leaving Harriet Tubman’s descendants and other advocates asking: Why the delay?

Furthermore, many are puzzled as to why the Maya Angelou quarter, honoring another black American woman, has been produced only months after it was proposed, while the Tubman banknote has not.

There are two overarching reasons why the Harriet Tubman bill has yet to be issued:

  • One reason has to do with the scheduled overhaul of all US banknotes by 2034.
  • The other factor is that designing and producing a commemorative coin, such as the Angelou quarter, is a less complex process than producing any new banknote.

Let’s look at each of those factors in detail.

Twenty-dollar Tubman bill is part of a bigger picture

The Harriet Tubman $20 bill is, in fact, on track to debut to the public…in 2030. The new banknote is one of five different denomination bills scheduled to be redesigned and produced by 2034. A federal anti-counterfeit committee established the schedule for the entire “line” in 2013, even before the idea to pay tribute to Tubman on a banknote was conceived. The new notes are projected to be released according to the following schedule:

  • $10 (2026)
  • $5 (2028)
  • $20 (2030)
  • $50 (2032)
  • $100 (2034)

The creation of a coin vs. the birth of a banknote

Designing and producing a new banknote is a longer, more complex process than minting a new coin. The Grio explains it this way: “The main concern when new bills are printed is whether they are counterfeit proof. There’s a lengthy process that each dollar in your wallet has undergone to be in your hands and distributed at banks. On the other hand, the production of coins looks entirely different.” 

The process of designing and producing currency (banknotes) involves the following steps, each of them complex and time-consuming:

  1. First image and subject matter must gain approval.
  2. Second, security features for the note are researched and developed.
  3. Next, the banknote is designed, and security features are obtained from specialized vendors.
  4. Materials and equipment to produce the note are secured and tested. 
  5. Once the note is produced, a public education campaign takes place. This usually occurs about 18 months before the note is put into circulation.

Addressing speculation with education

It’s easy to understand the frustration and speculation around the perceived delay in producing the Harriet Tubman $20 bill. The good news is that neither prejudice nor politics are to blame. Answering the question through education—about the processes required to obtain the best possible result—may help quell those concerns.

Harriet herself would likely agree with staying on course to obtain a proper result. After all, she is quoted as saying, “I was the 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.” 

Sources:

The Grio

Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Wane 15

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