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Celebrating Harriet Tubman, upcoming $20 bill

Payne Horning
Michele Jones Galvin, a descendant of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, says the "stars are aligning" for her ancestor. The U.S. Treasury is placing Tubman on its upcoming redesign of the $20 bill.

On Women's Equality Day recently, a crowd filed into the former house of suffragette and abolitionist MatildaJoslyn Gage in Fayetteville. Inside, an enlarged $20 bill featuring the face of HarrietTubman overlooked the group from atop the fireplace.

The group gathered to honor the famed conductor of the underground railroad and once-resident of Auburn, New York who has been selected to be the first female on American currency. Tubman's great, great, great grandniece MicheleJonesGalvin, and a Tubman biographer, said her family is honored.

"I just thought it was kind of an outlandish thought that, not just Aunt Harriet, but any person of color would be on any bill," Galvin said. "So, this is quite amazing."

Tubman was selected from dozens of U.S. female figures in an online survey where more than 600,000 votes were cast. It was conducted by the grassroots organization Women on 20s. Another New Yorker, Barbara Howard, founded of the group. She said getting Tubman on the bill is a victory for many reasons.

"One of the most important messages that we are putting out in the world is that freedom is possible, because freedom does not exist everywhere throughout the world," Howard said. "We have terrible human trafficking problems and slavery in this world."

Howard said it's also about elevating a female role model. 

"We need our heroes so that we know we're not just alone and we have no one we can refer to," Howard said. "We have a Harriet Tubman to refer to. We know that this path has been walked before and we can do it too."

The evening celebrating Howard's work and Tubman's legacy benefited the Matilda Joslyn Gage's Girl Ambassadors program, a young women's empowerment group. Gage Center Director Sally Roesch Wagner said the event honored Gage's legacy as well. 

"The echoing of the history in this house as we are part of watching history being made and celebrating the history that is being made in this moment - 600,000 people signing social media saying we want a woman on the $20 bill, this was comparable to the same work Gage was conducting in the same room where we were discussing this," Wagner said. "They were getting petitions going, they were demanding a change in the government. They made the change and we're making the change." 

Despite the progress that has been made on finally getting a woman on the nation's currency, Howard said there is still work to be done. Women on 20s is is talks with the U.S. government on whether former President Andrew Jackson, who was once a slave holder, should be completely removed from all future $20 bills. And Howard said they are also lobbying to reserve a space on the reverse side of the $20 where Native American history could be highlighted. 

The new bill is expected to debut in the next few years.