UNH alumna and acclaimed Harriet Tubman scholar discusses the new $20 bill

Friday, April 22, 2016

The recent news that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the U.S. Treasury’s $20 bill has received widespread praise. Among those applauding this decision is one UNH alumna who is known as one of the nation’s foremost Tubman scholars. Kate Clifford Larson ’03G is an historian and the author of several books, including “Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” Larson, who will receive an honorary degree from her alma mater at this year’s commencement, shared her thoughts on the latest Tubman news with UNH Today.

Kate Clifford Larson
Kate Clifford Larson ’03G

UNH Today: Were you aware in advance of the efforts to have Harriet Tubman be the first woman featured on U.S. currency?

Larson: Yes, I had been aware for at least a year that Tubman was under consideration. There was a great online campaign called “Women on 20s” that polled the public about their choice for a woman on that bill, and Tubman beat out Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and a dozen other women. Then the Treasury secretary announced that the $10 bill would be redesigned first and that he wanted the public to help him decide who that woman would be. We all pounced on that and made sure that the secretary knew the wishes of hundreds of thousands of people who had already voted. The Treasury held roundtable discussions across the country; millions of Americans took to social media, and it was clear that Tubman rose to the top of the stack.

UNH Today: What was your reaction to the news?

Larson: I was driving at the time and I had to pull over to the side of the road. I was elated and shed a few tears — the news literally took my breath away. My phone started ringing, beeping, tweeting like crazy! I had hoped, and even sensed, that she would make it, but when the news finally came, I did not anticipate how emotional I would feel. It is truly a proud moment for our country.

Larson's book on Harriet Tubman

UNH Today: What is the most important message this change sends?

Larson: This is an unprecedented moment for our nation to value and elevate women’s history and black women’s history in particular. It reinforces the message that women’s worth — economically, politically, socially, culturally and historically — matters, that Black Lives Matter. Tubman’s placement on the currency reflects her own values for economic independence and opportunity, but it also sends a clear message that our nation's diversity is on full display. Tubman on the $20 can remind us of American ideals — the struggles for freedom, equality, justice and self-determination — that we hold so dear.

UNH Today: Any other thoughts you would like to share?

Larson: This is an incredible moment, for sure, but I cannot wait to see those $20 bills slipping out of slots in ATM machines across the country. Every day, Americans will see that the achievements and legacy of an ordinary person, a person with exceptional disadvantages — unfree, poor, disabled, black and female — can change the way a nation views itself.

And, I have to say that the success of my work on Tubman would not have been possible without the exceptional guidance of my dissertation committee: Ellen Fitzpatrick, Bill Harris and Jeffrey Bolster, extraordinary historians and mentors in the UNH History Department. I am eternally grateful to them!