Baltimore is pushing hard to put abolitionist and underground railroad icon Harriet Tubman's portrait on the 20-dollar bill, replacing the War of 1812 hero, Indian-remover, central-bank-vetoer, Democratic Party-founder, and no longer stylish Andrew Jackson.
City Councilman James Kraft staged a press conference before Monday's council meeting, complete with a school girl to "cast the first vote" for Tubman in an online contest pitting 15 women against one another (Rachel Carson vs Sojourner Truth! Betty Freidan vs. Rosa Parks! Shirley Chisolm vs. Barbara Jordan! No communists or anarchists!) for the honor. The first round of voting ends April 5.
"Write about this," said Kraft, who was joined at the portable lectern by Councilwomen Sharon Green Middleton and Mary Pat Clarke, plus Councilmen Bill Henry and Carl Stokes, who used the occasion to repeat "a very horrible joke" about pay inequity between men and women. Putting Tubman on the 20, Stokes said, "will mean the $20 bill is only worth $15.40." Stokes added that this is a shameful injustice that also ought to be remedied.
At the press conference, not much was said of Tubman, who was born in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, escaped from slavery, and returned 13 times to rescue friends and family—about 70 people all told. She served as a nurse during the Civil War, as well as a spy for the Union. She helped the violent abolitionist John Brown recruit for his raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. She had family in Baltimore and passed through a time or two. Councilwoman Green Middleton called Tubman "just the epitome of the struggles."
Kraft explained the voting process, which kicked off recently with an online petition developed by a New York City construction contractor. The campaign has got a lot of coverage, including The Washington Post, the Daily News, and The New Yorker.
The 15 candidates will be narrowed to three, then another vote will follow to narrow it to the final candidate (since Kraft spoke there seems to have been a change. According to the vote site, "Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller will be added to the Final ballot after this Primary round concludes." The first-round bye is apparently a measure of affirmative action, if not solid forethought by the campaign's organizers).
From there, "President [Barack Obama] can make the recommendation," Kraft said, "and the president has indicated that he is open to changing the person on the 20."
"We'll be starting a hashtag this afternoon," Henry added. He later wrote three in a reporter's notebook: #tubmanonthe20, #canyouchangethe20, #youcanchangethe20. "Let's see which one sticks," he said.
By Wednesday afternoon the latter had the most retweets, with 16 between Henry and Councilman Eric Costello. The #Tubman hastag drew this unfortunate response from @HollywoodBall:
"I will go out of my way to never carry a $20 bill again if this PC crap actually puts #tubmanonthe20"
@HollywoodBall and his 49 followers would appear to have little to worry about. While the U.S. Treasury Department has long since abandoned its support of genocide and slavery (in the literal, de jure sense, at least), and, according to Treasury spokeswoman Suzanne Elio, "we don't officially comment on any of the efforts to redesign the currency," she does make clear that a new bill design with Tubman or any other woman on it is something of a long shot. She emails some boilerplate:
"The portraits currently appearing on the various denominations of paper currency were adopted in 1929 when the size of the notes was reduced. Prior to the adoption of this smaller sized currency, a special committee was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to study this aspect of the design. It was determined that portraits of Presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others. This decision was somewhat altered by the Secretary of the Treasury to include Alexander Hamilton, who was the first Secretary of the Treasury; Salmon P. Chase, who was Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War and is credited with promoting our National Banking System; and Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. All three of these statesmen were well known to the American public."
Given Chase's inclusion (he was on the long-discontinued $10,000 note) in the pantheon for his feats of central-bank-making strength, getting Jackson—who unprofitably demolished the national bank for nearly three decades—off the $20 bill ought to be a lock. But tradition is power, and the people who decide these matters are very manly old white men, by and large.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew makes the final design determination after consultation with the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (Acting Director: Leonard R. Olijar) and the Secret Service (Joseph P. Clancy). Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellin might have some say, as her bank is the sole wholesale purchaser of the bills—at about 8.5 cents per bill, no matter the denomination. The Federal Reserve did reject a batch once, in 2010, leaving $140 billion on the proverbial loading dock.
But it wasn't because Ben Franklin was a flatulent, sexist letch. About 1 percent of the all-new, super-secure hundreds developed a glitch, folding in the press ever so slightly and misprinting. As the Inspector General later reported, central bank officials "stated that issuing flawed notes could cause the public to question note authenticity, particularly abroad where U.S. currency is scrutinized more closely."
No one is saying that anyone ought to worry about what, say, the Saudi Arabian princelings would think about prospective "Wilma Mankiller" 20-dollar bills. But no one is exactly not saying that either.
Elio emphasizes that U.S. bills are "primarily redesigned for security purposes, and the 10 dollar note is next up." The Anti-Counterfeit Deterrent Committee recommended that the $10 bill get a facelift (retaining Alexander Hamilton's oh-so-old-white-man face, of course) in 2013 for issuance in 2020.
In an email, Barbara Ortiz Howard says the campaign is going well. "Voting remains robust, at 225K now and we will be looking to see if there is an uptick in Baltimore as a result of the Baltimore interest," she writes. "We are thrilled by the interest in Baltimore an the councilman's initiative."