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Historian Catherine Clinton discusses the legacy of Harriet Tubman

Historian Catherine Clinton discusses the legacy of Harriet Tubman

FEBRUARY 25, 2021 — There are close to 50 books on African American abolitionist, suffragist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. One of the most recent was authored by UTSA’s Denman Endowed Professor in American History Catherine Clinton.

In honor of Black History Month, UTSA Today spoke to Clinton about Tubman’s legacy, recent efforts to put her on the $20 bill, and how she still makes news in present times.

The Biden Administration announced that its "exploring ways to speed up" the release of new $20 bills featuring Tubman. Would you provide a brief history on the call to have her on the currency and what it means beyond U.S. borders?

A grassroots internet campaign called Women on 20s fueled interest in putting a female face on American currency. Harriet Tubman emerged in May 2015 as the leading candidate to be the first female on U.S. bills. When the it was announced the following year that Tubman would indeed appear on the front of the $20 bill, she nearly broke the internet with online searches. To put a female on the currency is a sign of great respect which conveys international visibility.

In this case, it was one of the most intrepid liberators on the Underground Railroad, and one of the few females to fight alongside Union comrades, conducting raids during the war to end slavery. The emancipationist legacy of America’s founding principles would be highlighted by this new design and to put a black woman on the bill shows the world that the United States intends to keep its promise of liberty and justice — however delayed — for all.

“I have every confidence that the Harriet I came to know — to honor and revere — would appreciate the recognition.”

According to a Stanford publication, Harriet Tubman was named one of the top 10 American heroes in The Journal of American History — not only among high schoolers but also adults. What does this say about America's shift in what it means to be heroic?

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the abolitionists were viewed as a fringe, extremist group who did not represent mainstream America. But current historians have been pulling these marginal figures into our national narrative, drawing them out of the shadows. Today we see more clearly how protests against injustice preserve democracy and expand freedoms.

Tubman and her Underground colleagues worked clandestinely to spirit enslaved people to safety. Instead of being viewed as thieves and lawbreakers, they are now seen as warriors against the slavocracy. They risked their own lives, which highlights heroism and shines the spotlight on formerly neglected figures like Tubman.

The national theme of Black History Month in 2021 is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” Looking at Tubman’s personal history, how did the role of family shape her to become a civil rights icon?

Tubman revered her family and spent the first few years after she escaped bondage returning to her Maryland home county. With a price on her head, she would undertake missions to guide her siblings to freedom. She even was able to spirit her aging parents northward to Canada for safety, where her family members exiled themselves to escape the slavecatcher’s grasp.

Following war’s end, many returned to Auburn in upstate New York where Tubman had purchased a home and made a life as a reformer and philanthropist.  She included the women in her family in charitable endeavors and was committed to their obtaining the education that she had been denied. Many descendants return to her graveside in Auburn every March 13 for the annual ceremony commemorating her life and marking her passing.

Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” for offering safe passage to African Americans in bondage, yet she held different roles in the movement for liberation. What else did she do that would surprise those not too familiar with her contributions?

Although the new film “Harriet” touched briefly on her Civil War service, most people know very little about her wartime contributions. She was sent by the governor of Massachusetts to occupy South Carolina, and quickly drafted by the Union command as a scout and a spy.

Federal troops counted on her to discover where Confederates planted mines in the rivers along the Atlantic Coast.  She helped liberate over 750 of the enslaved in just one night in June 1863. Liberated families were carried back to freedom and safety by Union gunboats. Tubman also travelled as far south as Fernandina, Florida, to help the scores of Union troops felled by fevers.

If Harriet Tubman was alive now, what do you think she'd be doing?

Tubman would clearly be allied with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was not surprisingly founded by women. But in order to contradict the pattern of women’s contributions remaining overshadowed by male leaders, a new movement focusing on women victims of police brutality — such as Say Her Name — might be where Tubman would concentrate her energies.

UTSA history professor Catherine Clinton

In your opinion, how would Tubman react to learning that her image would appear on American currency?

Some historians have argued that Harriet Tubman would not want to have any part of being on the $20 bill, essentially “riding on the back of Andrew Jackson.” Others suggest that Tubman might have deplored the capitalist implications of being the face of American money.

I have every confidence that the Harriet I came to know — to honor and revere — would appreciate the recognition. Just as it was a great day for her in June 1908 when John Brown Infirmary, part of the Harriet Tubman Home, was opened to great fanfare. Surrounded by her Auburn friends and fans, Tubman wrapped Old Glory around her shoulders and celebrated this realization of a dream.

At one point, she confessed to a journalist, “You wouldn’t think that after I served the flag so faithfully, I should come to want under its folds.” And so in this century, we cannot repay the debt, but we can exalt her as a patriot, as a pathbreaker, and as a pioneer for race and gender, when she becomes the first woman to earn a place on the face of American currency.

Milady Nazir

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