“Every Great Dream Begins with a Dreamer…”

U.S. Treasury Design Proposal in the Public Domain

Harriet Tubman and Historical Justice

There are lots of Republican Cherokees, and the reason why in two words is Andrew Jackson. As we speak, there are Cherokees who put twenty dollar bills in their wallets all with Jackson on the same side, so they can turn the entire wad in a direction that avoids seeing his face.

Which always leads to the question, “When are you Cherokees going to get over the Trail of Tears?” It’s a cheap shot but also a short cut to the truth to say the same time Jews get over the Shoah or Navajos get over the Long Walk or Potawatomi get over the Trail of Death. How long does it take to forget about a disaster of a size that everybody knew somebody who died? Does it make it worse that the whole happening was man-made and based on fraud? What’s the size of the disappointment that Chief John Ross came within one vote of stopping the travesty by convincing the U.S. Senate to withhold its consent and advise the executive that this country does not traffic in fraud?

This is why there were happy campers in the Cherokee Nation when the competition to redesign the twenty came up with Araminta Ross, the birth name of a brave woman who comes down to us in history as Harriet Tubman. Most Cherokees voted for Wilma Mankiller, a “favorite daughter” deal, but we all knew Mankiller was a long shot and the main event was getting rid of Jackson.

“Minty” was born into slavery, but she made a run for freedom in her mid-twenties with two of her brothers. The brothers thought better of risking their lives and went back. Next time, Minty went alone and made it to free territory, where she changed her first name to match her mother’s and she married a free African named John Tubman and took his surname.

She immediately began returning to the slave states, first for her family and friends and then for anyone seeking freedom. “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years,” she said later, “and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

When the Civil War broke out, she started aiding the Union as a cook and a nurse, but she was soon risking her life to put her knowledge of the terrain to work as a spy.

Tubman always carried a pistol on the Underground Railroad, for self-defense and to shoot any slaves who threatened to go back. She briefly graduated to a rifle when she led the Combahee River Raid, sacking a line of plantations and freeing more than 700 slaves. When anyone marveled at her courage, she said:

I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.

Go ahead and discount for my Cherokee blood, I still think most people will find Harriet Tubman more worthy to appear on U.S. currency than Andrew Jackson. Of course, Donald Trump disagrees, and he immediately put the Tubman twenty on hold, calling it “political correctness.”

I give that point to Trump — it is certainly more politically correct to be against slavery in 2019 than to be for it.

Observers differ over whether Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is following Trump’s orders by slow-walking the Tubman twenty or trying to run out the clock on the Trump presidency so as to avoid the idea being completely scrapped. The latter is not impossible, since so few people have managed to serve in the Trump administration without damage to their reputations.

Saving the Tubman twenty would make a lot of people besides Cherokees very happy. There have been very few women on U.S. currency and no African-Americans, although it’s worth noting that Tubman did most of her public service as an African. The former slaves became citizens with ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, so Tubman lived 45 years as a free African-American. She spent most of those years agitating for women’s suffrage.

Harriet Tubman never got around to learning how to read and write. You might say she stayed busy. And she still had flights of verbal eloquence from all those years of public speaking and convincing people to attempt what they believed impossible. It’s hard not to see MLK coming in the future when Harriet Tubman opined, Every great dream begins with a dreamer.

Speaking of great dreams, it befits a nation born in revolution against hereditary royalty that the man who lived in the fine mansion known as The Hermitage would be removed from the nation’s legal tender in favor of a woman from the slave quarters.

If we must wait until Mr. Trump goes on to his post-presidency reward (when he will be exposed to the indictments he has no reason to fear now), condign results for Presidents Jackson and Trump will be worth the wait. Harriet Tubman is used to waiting for freedom and for citizenship and she died still waiting for the right to vote. She can certainly wait a little longer for the recognition she is due.

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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