White America’s Token Gestures

One of my hobbies growing up that I revisit occasionally is collecting coins. Every once in a while the US Mint releases a coin that inspires me.

This Dr. Maya Angelou quarter released last year inspired me. I purchased a couple of sets from the Mint last year. It is distressing, however, that an enslaver of Black people is on the other side of the coin.

In a flurry of excitement over the Dr. Maya Angelou quarters, I want to know WHY a quarter was produced within months of being announced, while the highly anticipated Tubman $20 note is still not in circulation.

All seven circulating united states banknote denominations feature white men: George Washington on the $1 bill, Thomas Jefferson on the $2 bill, Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill, Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill, and Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill.


Back during the Obama administration, a concept design was promised to be unveiled in 2020 to coincide with the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Obama administration Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had selected Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson, a slave-owning president who forced Cherokees and many other Indian nations on deadly marches out of their southern homelands, on the $20 bill.

The plan was halted by President Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said as far as he was concerned, Jackson would remain on the $20 bill.

Harvey B. Lindsley/Library of Congress via AP, Getty Images

If the Biden administration proceeds with the full scope of redesign plans laid out by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in 2016 (before it was tabled by the Trump administration), we will see not only a change to the $20 note, but also the addition of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul to the back of the $10 bill, and civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Marian Anderson on the back of the $5 bill.

These three new notes would break the century-old exclusion of women from being depicted on American banknotes—the last and only woman to appear in a portrait on a federal banknote was Martha Washington, more than a century ago—and would feature Black historical figures on federal banknotes for the first time.

Beyond expanding representation, the new designs would reflect some of the major social movements of the past 200 years that have helped to move the United States toward its founding ideals of freedom, equality and justice.

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