The National Consumers League (NCL) applauds U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s decision to put abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. We had campaigned for our pioneering early leader, Florence Kelley (who we affectionately call “FK”), to be the first woman on U.S. paper currency. But, I believe that Kelley herself would have been delighted with this decision. Here’s why…
Tubman was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1820’s. She escaped to Philadelphia 25 years later, but returned to the South to help free other slaves through the iconic Underground Railroad. Indeed, Tubman’s name is synonymous with the Underground Railroad. Tubman herself noted, “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years.” During the Civil War, Tubman led Union scouts in South Carolina and led raids throughout the South that freed hundreds of slaves. Later she worked with Susan B. Anthony for women’s suffrage. And sadly, she died in 1913, seven years short of the adoption of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
Why would FK be so pleased with Tubman on the $20? Let’s leave aside the fact that the current face on the $20, Andrew Jackson, owned slaves and oversaw the forced the migration thousands of Native Americans from their homes in what is now called The Trail of Tears.
Florence Kelley passionately advocated for racial equality; she refused to stay in hotels that would not admit her African-American colleagues. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and dear friends with civil rights activist W.E.B Dubois, who spoke at her funeral. She grew up in a Quaker home with her Aunt Sarah as a major influence; Sarah Pugh championed the movement to urge consumers never to buy products made with slave labor. Kelley’s father (a Philadelphia congressman) and Abraham Lincoln were close friends and founders of the Republican Party, and both agreed on the evils of slavery. Kelley, like Tubman, also fought valiantly for women’s suffrage.
For all these reasons, the decision to place activist, abolitionist, and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill surely would have pleased Florence Kelley enormously—as it does today’s Board and staff of the National Consumers League. As U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios noted at a recent meeting NCL attended on the topic, “this isn’t one and done. There will be other women on U.S. paper currency in the years to come.” And NCL will once again remind the world of why Florence Kelley deserves a place on U.S. currency alongside heroic American women like Harriet Tubman. For now, we think Secretary Lew made the right call