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My 'Aunt Harriet' Is the Greatest of Patriots. She Deserves a Spot on the $20 Bill.

Rose Minutaglio
Photo credit: UniversalImagesGroup - Getty Images

From ELLE

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delayed a redesign to add national hero Harriet Tubman to the $20 bill during a House hearing on Wednesday. The redrawing was nearly four years in the making, and set to debut next year on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

"I’m not focused on that for the moment,” Mnuchin reportedly said before the House Financial Services Committee, adding that the face of the note will not change until after President Trump leaves office.

For now, $20 bills featuring our nation's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, a brutal slaveowner who fiercely detested abolitionists and oppressed Native Americans, will continue pouring out of American ATMs.

Tubman's great-great-great-grandniece, Ernestine “Tina” Martin Wyatt, calls the postponement an "aversion tactic" by the Trump administration to quash the initiative altogether.

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"I'm so mad and frustrated and angry, she deserves to be there," Martin Wyatt, a 65-year-old artist from Buffalo, New York, tells ELLE.com. "This would have been an honor, an olive branch and an acknowledgement, of sorts, from the president to say, 'We want to honor this African American woman that rose out of oppression, we want to honor what she did for this country.' To me, she's the greatest of patriots, and should be represented in our currency."

Martin Wyatt grew up visiting Tubman's home in Auburn, New York, with her grandmother, mother, and siblings. As a child, she didn't fully grasp why her 'Aunt Harriet' was so special. It was only after reading Sarah Bradford's famed biography Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People that she began to understand, and appreciate, the important role her relative from long-ago played in American history.

Tubman was born into slavery, escaped, returned to the South to help free other slaves, and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she worked for the Union army as a nurse. She was also a secret spy and respected military leader for the U.S. Army, according to National Geographic.

It would have been a wonderfully historic cultural milestone to add Tubman to the $20 bill. According to The New York Times, women have appeared on currency in our country only a handful of times, and "often on seldom-used $1 coins." At one time, the now-grossly romanticized Pocahontas was on the $10 bill, and the country's First Lady Martha Washington was on a $1 silver certificate for three years. Social reformer and suffragist Susan B. Anthony debuted on a dollar in the 1980s and briefly in 1999.


The initiative to put Tubman on the double sawbuck started back in 2015 when Obama's treasury secretary, Jack Lew, announced the redraw plan. Her descendants approved.

"Aunt Harriet stands for love and goodness and she did what she did without hesitation and with a bounty on her head," Martin Wyatt says. "She was a patriot through and through and we, her descendants, felt it was a kind of ultimate honor to have her on the $20."

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called the redesign “pure political correctness” and, instead, suggested Tubman appear on the less-popular $2 bill. “Andrew Jackson had a great history,” Trump said on NBC's Today Show, “and I think it’s very rough when you take somebody off the bill.”

According to Vox, Lew told reporters his statement was not correct: Jackson was not going to be scrubbed from the bill altogether; Tubman was to appear on one side and Jackson on the other.

Mnuchin, who was confirmed as Trump's Secretary of the Treasury on February 13, 2017, has backed Trump, making it very clear (multiple times) that a currency redrawing is not a priority for the administration. Last year, he told CNBC that, "People have been on the bills for a long period of time. This is something we’ll consider. Right now, we’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.”

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On Wednesday, members of the activist group Women on 20s, which helped push the initiative to get Tubman on the bill, released a statement expressing their disappointment.

"We’re not surprised that Secretary Mnuchin may be kicking the design reveal of the $20 bill to sometime beyond the potential interference of a Trump presidency,” the group said. "At the very least show us a Tubman bill design in time for the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020. As we’ve been saying for years, symbols do matter.”

Martin Wyatt is still hopeful her famous ancestor will, at some point, be the face of the $20 bill. In the meantime, she plans to start a petition. "I want to let the White House know our family is behind this," she says. "It's about time, and we need to make our voices heard."

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