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U.S. Treasury Confirms Harriet Tubman Will Replace Andrew Jackson On $20 Bill

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Harriet Tubman who helped more than 300 slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad will be the new face of the $20 bill. Tubman will be the first woman featured on the front of U.S. currency in more than a century and the first African-American ever. We'll hear more about how the Treasury Department made that decision elsewhere in the program, but to discuss the significance of the choice, we're joined by Lonnie Bunch. He's founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Welcome to the program.

LONNIE BUNCH: Thank you. Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: What would you say is the significance of the choice of Harriet Tubman?

BUNCH: Well, I think in many ways the dollar is something that everybody looks at, everybody touches. And, for me, having Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill really says, first of all, that America realizes that it's not the same country it once was, that it's a place where diversity matters. And it allows us to make a hero out of someone like Harriet Tubman who deserves to be a hero.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about her and the world she was born into. She was born a slave in the 1820s. She gained her freedom by running away in the night, and then she went on to help others find their freedom through the Underground Railroad. What was it that compelled her to put her own freedom if not her life at risk again and again?

BUNCH: I think part of it was initially that there were relatives, people that she knew that were left behind that she wanted to help set free. But the reality is she knew what it was like to be enslaved. She understood the pain, she understood the lack of freedom, but she also understood the joy that came with the finding your own destiny. So I think, for her, going back to help people escape was part of her commitment to say, even though I am now free, I'm not free until all of us are.

SIEGEL: Interestingly, she's going to be on the 20, and I read that she actually earned the sum of $20 a month as a pension for her service for the Union Army during the Civil War. What did she do for the Union Army during the Civil War?

BUNCH: Well, Harriet Tubman was really a fascinating person. She was a nurse for a period of that time, but she was also a spy. You know, it was easier for African-Americans to go back and forth over the lines and bring information back. And the fact that they gave her a pension really recognized how important she was to the war effort.

SIEGEL: Tubman is bumping President Andrew Jackson to the back of the 20. He has been demoted, I guess, but not kicked off the currency. Jackson was a slaveholder, and I wonder how you feel about Mrs. Tubman sharing the bill with him.

BUNCH: Well, I think that that fact that Jackson was a slaveholder - also Jackson was somebody who was really instrumental in, you know, destroying many of the native tribes with the Trail of Tears. I think in some ways maybe the fact that he's still there gives us an opportunity for a lesson, that we have people to be able to understand Jackson, but to understand the impact of what he did and the fact that because people like Harriet Tubman, we were able to overcome the things that someone like Jackson did.

SIEGEL: Just another point we should mention - she lived to be over 90, we think, long enough to live into the 20th century and to be part of the movement for women's suffrage. So her role as the woman who returns to the front of our currency is quite fitting there, too.

BUNCH: In many ways, Harriet Tubman is this modern woman. She grabs her own freedom. She defines her own destiny, but she also realizes that it's important to give freedom and fairness to everybody - to African-American and to women. And so I think in some ways it's very appropriate that she's on the $20 bill.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you for talking with us about it.

BUNCH: It's my great pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Lonnie Bunch who is founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.