U.S. Treasury secretary Jacob Lew recently announced that Harriet Tubman, an African-American escaped slave, and an iconic hero of the Underground Railroad before and during the U.S. Civil War, would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, beginning in 2020. PW caught up with historian, Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown, 2004) to talk about Tubman's life and times, and why she deserves to be commemorated on the $20 bill.
What was your reaction when treasury secretary Jacob Lew disclosed that reading your biography, Harriet Tubman: Road to Freedom, played a significant role in his decision to select Harriet Tubman for inclusion on the $20 bill?
I was thrilled. I am an academically trained scholar, who had turned to writing biography to reach a larger public—but as the turn of the century approached, Harriet Tubman still seemed relegated to the children’s shelf. So I began work on the first biography of Tubman in over 50 years, never imagining that it could contribute to this kind of national conversation about women’s contributions to the American past, and particularly African American women’s neglected roles.
What led you to decide to research the life of Harriet Tubman?
Harriet Tubman became a controversial figure in the 1990s when politicians bandied about her name in connection with national history standards, and that tone of derision in this debate fired my energy. As a Civil War scholar, I was determined to turn Tubman into a flesh-and-blood actor within her own lifetime, the spy and scout who had made history, and earned a $20 pension from the government. She had put her life in danger for years, engaged in the struggle to overthrow slavery. Imagine my delight that Sojourner Truth will be joining a quartet of suffragists on the steps of the Treasury on the redesign of $10 bill—and Harriet Tubman will be front and center on the twenty. I wrote my own book for young readers, When Harriet Met Sojourner, in 2007.
Harriet Tubman is best known for her role in the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses where slaves could hide while making their escape to the North. But you say there is much more to her story, including a role in the abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859. Do tell.
John Brown was a great admirer of Harriet Tubman and always referred to her as “General.” He praised this this five-foot-tall woman with such skill and talents, that she became one of the most successful “abductors” on the Underground Railroad. Abductors were those who went behind enemy lines to rescue those enslaved and lead them to freedom. And when the Underground Railroad in a sense came above ground with the Civil War, Tubman went to occupied South Carolina and led the Combahee River Raid and proved her military prowess.
I can imagine the lack of primary sources when you were doing your research on an African-American woman who did not leave much written material behind. In your quest to separate the actual history from the legend, how did you go about your researching your subject in a way that was accurate, in terms of the historical record?
I was at first daunted by the lack of written record, as my previous biography had been about Fanny Kemble who left 11 volumes of memoirs, and now I was trying to track the life of an illiterate woman who left us no letters and diaries. But Tubman was someone who left such a striking impression—as when she spoke at a Boston antislavery meeting, using the pseudonym Harriet “Garrison” to avoid bounty hunters. So newspapers and contemporary accounts often included mention of her.