CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | This change in U.S. currency is right on t - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | This change in U.S. currency is right on the money

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Harriet Tubman. U.S. Library of Congress photo via The Associated Press. Harriet Tubman. U.S. Library of Congress photo via The Associated Press.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Even a broken clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. So we all ought to pause for a moment to recognize that with the recent decision to honor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill -- and to begin producing bills with tactile elements so that the blind are able to distinguish them -- a U.S. government entity was right on the money twice.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, responding to widespread requests, announced his intention to put a woman on U.S. currency last year, and held many discussions with citizens, historians and politicians as he considered who that woman should be.

I doubt if he could've found one more deserving than Tubman. I'll tell you why in a moment. First, some caveats.

I'm not one who believes in the whitewashing of the accomplishments of the founding fathers. I do believe they need to be viewed realistically -- as all history should be viewed. Their flaws do not diminish the odds they beat to breathe life into the American experiment. But their failures did leave ramifications that we still deal with. We should deal with them as they were, both their ideas and deeds, and shortcomings.

That Thomas Jefferson could write, "all men are created equal" into our national fabric, but not have the fortitude to free his own slaves, despite repeated entreaties to do that and more from enlightened friends and former slaves themselves, is a paradox of history.

We should not view these "great men" as the great figures etched in stone that they have become, but as real men, who struggled and argued and rose and fell.

Nor should our eyes solely rest on them as we consider the history of this country. We need to look at the lives of ordinary people, consider the shopkeepers and farmers, writers and artists, and celebrate the triumphs that weren't on the front pages of the newspapers but which have come to mean a great deal to this nation.

It's out of that background that on a day we do not know, in a year we do not know, a child named Araminta Ross was born on a plantation in Dorchester County, Md., into a life of slavery. She was not what the slaveholding society of the day would have called "a good slave." She was rebellious and disobedient, often was beaten, and early on grew defiant and fearless in the face of such physical abuse. Once when she refused a master's command to help round up a runaway slave, he threw a two-pound weight and hit her in the head, fracturing her skill. She suffered some kind of disability from this wound the rest of her life, suffered seizures and had headaches.

In 1844 she married John Tubman, and took her mother's first name, Harriet. Five years later, she escaped to Pennsylvania, after hearing rumors that she might be sold.

Think about this. Having escaped as degrading a life as can be experienced by a human, most of us would never wish to set foot back into it again. She did. Over and over again. Starting with her niece and her niece's two children, she became consumed with leading as many slaves as she could to freedom. Using her knowledge of the swamps and woods, she would bring more than 300 slaves to freedom in the North, or to Canada, once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. Among those was her brother. When she tried to conduct her husband, who had remarried, to the north, he refused. Her reputation grew. She conferred with John Brown before his raid on Harpers Ferry. She gave lectures in New England on her exploits on the Underground Railroad.

If she did nothing else in life, she would have been a hero. But when the Civil War broke out, and once President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, she supported the cause of the Union Army, providing priceless information from her knowledge of local waterways and woods in South Carolina and Maryland. She served as a Union scout and spy. She organized a network of black riverboat pilots to gather intelligence for the Union Army. They mapped South Carolina shorelines and brought back information on the position of Confederate defenses. In 1863, she guided a party of gunboats led by Col. James Montgomery past Confederate mines up the Combahee River. She determined the placement of mines by meeting with slaves who helped place them, in exchange for their freedom, or cash. Once ashore the Union army destroyed several plantations and returned with about 700 freed slaves, some of whom later enlisted for military action.

It was not a large assault, and Tubman was not serving the U.S. Army in any official capacity, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who knew and approved of all her military efforts, did not lose the significance of what had happened.

"This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid," Stanton said.

In 2008, a bridge over that river was named in her honor. Credit sometimes is a long time coming.

If you have seen the Academy Award-winning film, "Glory," you're familiar with the of the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment in the U.S. Army. You may not know that before that regiment's heroic and ill-fated charge on Fort Wagner, Tubman was among those who fed the soldiers their final meal, including Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who would die in the assault. Tubman also helped treat the wounded and bury the dead.

Despite her service to the Army, for which she had no official status and drew no official salary, it would be more than three decades before she would be granted a pension -- $20 a week, the denomination on which her face now will be displayed.

Later in life, she did odd jobs. She helped former slaves. She received royalties from her biographies. And late in life, having played a central role in righting one of America's great wrongs with emancipation, she set her sights on another, women's suffrage. Susan B. Anthony counted her as a friend and ally.

In 1896 she bought 25 acres, establishing a place for poor and aging African Americans. She died there in 1903.

You cannot know all of those things, and many more that she said and did, and say she is undeserving of the honor the U.S. Treasury has given her.

Some say the move is an act of political correctness. Those people are half right. It may or may not be politically correct, but it is without question correct.

A nation's currency is perishable. It is printed on paper. It is not etched into stone. Nations around the world routinely change the images placed on their currency. My favorite -- Bosnia and Herzegovina, where of the nine individuals depicted on currency, eight are poets. The other is a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

We are past due for a currency change. Moreover, that the U.S. has for so long lagged behind in making currency more easily recognizable for the blind is without defense.

Some have lamented the relegation of Andrew Jackson to the back of the $20 bill. Certainly, Jackson himself would've lamented it. He was one of nine U.S. Presidents to own slaves, and he was unapologetic about it.

He won the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and his political brand was victory. He won the popular vote in the election of 1824, but Henry Clay swung Kentucky's support to John Quincy Adams, thereby denying him the presidency. There would be no keeping him from it in the next two elections. He founded the Democratic party, and swept to victory behind his populist message.

Jackson has been accepted as a great president, but his activity regarding slavery and his treatment of Native Americans has been problematic. In 1790, he received power of attorney from a man to track down his runaway slaves for him. He once advertised to recover one of his own runaway slaves, offering a $50 reward, plus "ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred."

He railed against "the wicked design" of the abolition movement, and sided with southern postmasters when they chose to destroy abolitionist literature and tracts sent from the north.

Jackson has appeared on the $5, $10, $20 and $10,000 notes. He's had a good run. And he was the proper choice to move to the back of the bill in this case.

A good deal of credit here ought to go to Treasury Secretary Lew. He responded to widespread calls for a woman or minority on the U.S. currency by moving forward in a thoughtful way, not by subtracting those honored on bank notes but by adding, and by taking the opportunity to make useful changes for the blind. When a Broadway musical saved Alexander Hamilton on the $10, he pivoted to a wider plan to remake all the currency.

One final thought. It's a highly symbolic thing to change the money. It really doesn't change much else. Harriet Tubman's face on the $20 won't really get more of those bills into the hands of the poor, or help anyone find jobs, or more educational opportunities.

Symbolic changes can be nice, and even appropriate. But they're still only symbolic. The need for real change rolls on.

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