In April, the U.S. Treasury announced a facelift of the $5, $10 and $20 bills*, the last of which will bear the portrait of abolitionist, activist and U.S. Army spy Harriet Tubman. Tubman’s first biographer, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, was an internationally renowned writer and a Geneva resident, whose home at 629 S. Main Street now houses the Hobart and William Smith Colleges admissions office. Bradford’s interviews with Tubman and the books resulting from those interviews – “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman” and “Harriet Tubman, Moses of Her People” – provide the basis for much of what is currently known about Tubman’s life.
In her new documentary, “Daughters of the New Republic: Harriet Tubman and Sarah Bradford,” which premiered the same day as the Treasury’s announcement, Professor of Media & Society Linda Robertson explores the friendship and professional collaboration between the two women. She shares her thoughts on Tubman’s legacy, the insight offered by Bradford’s biographies and the significance of the Treasury’s announcement.
In the public commentary he received about changing the face of U.S. currency, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew found a “pattern…that Harriet Tubman struck a chord with people in all parts of the country, of all ages.” Why do you think Harriet Tubman stood out in this way?
If you think about the struggle for both abolition and the emancipation of women — those movements are galvanized in Harriet Tubman. Other figures in the women’s suffrage movement were certainly concerned about abolition but are more known for their roles around suffrage. Tubman was really central in both. She represents courage and absolute dedication. She overcame extraordinary odds to emancipate herself and her family from slavery and to emancipate all women. She risked her life for her undaunted vision of how American ought to be, how it ought to move forward.
How did Bradford’s biographies of Tubman come about, and what has been their impact on Tubman’s legacy?
At the time, Tubman was in a state of penury. She and her friends had been trying to get her the pension she deserved for serving as a nurse and scout during the Civil War, and for leading a military campaign that resulted in the freeing of about 800 slaves. She clearly deserved a pension but was repeatedly refused. The hope was that if she could get her biography written, it might both prick the conscience of Congress and provide the funds she needed to pay off her mortgage.
Because she was illiterate, Tubman was dependent on the person writing the biography to let her voice and experience come through in an authentic way, to not distort it-she was critical of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” because she thought it didn’t represent accurately what the life of a slave was like; she thought it was sanitized.
Bradford was getting ready to leave the country for Europe with her daughters when Tubman asked her write the biography, but in a way she couldn’t say no. Tubman and Bradford had become friends after the Civil War, and Tubman trusted Bradford. Bradford’s husband had abandoned her; Tubman’s had too. Bradford lost two children during the war, and had a lot of sympathy for the abolition movement to begin with. She had been raised in a very progressive family, around people who were against slavery and for civil rights for women, and had a sense that her generation had a duty to build this new republic on a strong foundation of institutional equality.
Without Bradford agreeing to write Tubman’s first biography and the later editions, Tubman might have been lost to history. It’s a unique collaboration between two women of very different backgrounds with a common vision of equality.
Can we speculate at how Harriet Tubman might feel about having her face on U.S. currency? What about Sarah Bradford?
As far as Tubman is concerned, she would have seen it as recognition of the contribution she made to this country — and rightly so. But she remained a humble woman with a clear vision of what she wanted to do. She never asked for anything for herself, but asked for help on behalf of some project she had in mind, such as building a nursing home for African-Americans living in Auburn or supporting the schools for the newly-freed African Americans in the South.
Bradford would have thought it long overdue, which it is, but she would have had a good enough sense of irony to see that Tubman on one side and Jackson on the other represents the contradictions that are a fact of American life and history. Jackson was responsible for the Trail of Tears, or the Indian Removals in the 1830s, to clear land for the slave-holding plantation owners of the South while Tubman was responsible for leading hundreds of people to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
The front of the $20 bill will feature Tubman; the back of the $10, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and Sojourner Truth; the back of the $5, Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. What are the implications-symbolic and/or practical-of the government acknowledging in this regard these champions of racial and gender equity?
This decision is a change to a more dynamic representation of how our nation was formed because it recognizes the broad scope of America. Until now we’ve only seen the Presidents staring out at us, as if that’s all we needed to see about ourselves, whereas European currency has celebrated or represented more broadly the figures who have made contributions to history.
It’s strange that it took the Treasury so long. For decades, stamps have recognized how American history was shaped, in the arts, in civil rights, even in agriculture and horticulture. But for the Treasury to recognize how American history was made and who helped make it, and that our currency is not a static symbol, is superb and a long time coming.
*Timothy T. Crane ’77 is the general manager of the Swedish branch of Crane & Co., a paper manufacturer that prints, among other products, national currencies and is the predominant supplier of paper for use in U.S. currency.