Harriet Tubman and President Andrew Jackson lived on opposite sides of the American experience.
Tubman, a black woman, escaped slavery to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, risking her life to lead slaves to freedom. Jackson, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants and owner of slaves, was elected president as a war hero and became known for policies that led to the deaths of countless Native Americans.
Soon, though, the two will share prominent placement on a new $20 bill — with Tubman, the former slave, getting top billing.
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said Tubman would replace Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, becoming the first woman in more than a century and first African American to grace the front of a paper note. Jackson will be featured on the back of the bill alongside an image of the White House.
In another twist, Alexander Hamilton got a reprieve. Initially targeted for replacement by a woman on the $10 bill, Hamilton's reputation was burnished by an unlikely smash Broadway play and his case pressed by outraged historians pointing to his seminal role in creating the nation's first central bank.
Treasury's announcement followed almost a year of heated public debate, shaped by social media and history alike.
Even former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke weighed in, pressing Hamilton's case on his blog. Bernanke wrote Wednesday that Tubman was an “excellent and deserving choice” while Hamilton had a better claim than any to stay on a bill.
Lew said the final concept designs of new $20, $10 and $5 bills are scheduled to be completed and unveiled by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Lew did not give a more specific timetable of when the bills would be released into circulation, saying only that he had directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to “work as quickly as possible” while making sure to meet security requirements for the bills that are the “first and foremost responsibility.”
The first bill up for a remake is the $10, as part of Treasury's ongoing efforts to incorporate anti-counterfeiting technologies.
With Hamilton's position secure, and with the Obama administration under pressure to add diversity to the currency, Lew's compromise is to replace a picture of the Treasury building on the back of the $10 with leaders of the suffrage movement — Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Lucretia Mott.
The back of the $5 bill will also be redesigned to include opera singer Marian Anderson, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Some historians believe the flood of new faces on American currency could mark a shift in attitudes toward role models.
“Andrew Jackson is what we used to think of as a great American hero,” said Brenda Stevenson, UCLA professor of history and African American studies. “He stood for the white, male political and economic elite, with great military honor associated with him.