In Brooklyn, Harriet Tubman is already on $20 bills
“Andrew Jackson really wasn’t a great president.”
A Brooklyn artist fed up with the Trump administration’s decision to delay a redesign of the $20 dollar bill with Harriet Tubman’s face is taking matters into her own hands.
Dena Cooper, a freelance illustrator living in Bay Ridge, has begun stamping hundreds of $20 dollar bills with the face of the famous abolitionist and prominent “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. Her design incorporates the facial features of the bill’s current occupant, President Andrew Jackson, into Tubman’s image — and it doesn’t change the way the bills can be spent.
“Andrew Jackson really wasn’t a great president,” Cooper said. “He did a lot of negative things, especially for the indigenous people in this country: creating the trail of tears. Why do we have a man like that glorified on our currency when this woman was a spy in the Civil War for the Union? She facilitated the Underground Railroad and she also was a huge candidate for Women’s Suffrage in the early 1900s. She has touched our country in so many positive ways.”
Cooper estimates that roughly 350 bills with Tubman’s face on it are in circulation around New York, Virginia, Michigan and California. Her brother-in-law gave her $2,000 worth of $20 bills to be stamped. “It’s gotten much bigger than I thought it would,” she said.
Cooper said she hopes to set up a booth where people can bring their own bills to be stamped. “I definitely hope that women are emboldened and empowered by a woman’s presence on our U.S. currency — but more than that, women of color,” she said. “Although I’m not a woman of color, I see that in this feminist movement that’s become so commercial … women of color are lost in those messages. Some of the strongest women who have been through the hardest of circumstances are women of color, and they deserve a platform just as much as any woman.”
The $20 bill featuring Tubman was slated to be released this year — the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote — but was postponed in May by President Trump’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin.
Mnuchin announced that the new Tubman bill, an Obama initiative, would be delayed until at least 2026 — when Trump is out of office — and it would not be in circulation until 2028. There is even some speculation, according to The New York Times, that Tubman might not appear on it at all.
The Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, introduced early last year, sought to ensure that all $20 banknotes printed after Dec. 31, 2020 carried Tubman’s face. The legislation, however, stalled in both the House and the Senate.
As a presidential candidate, Trump called the initial move to replace Jackson’s face with Tubman’s “pure political correctness.” He instead suggested that she be put on the $2 bill.
The legality surrounding stamping bills is somewhat of a gray area. It is illegal to deface currency, but the Bureau of Engraving and Printing defines that as someone who “cuts, disfigures, perforates, unites or cements together” banknotes “with intent to render such items unfit to be reissued.” It is also illegal to advertise on money.
Susan Ades Stone, executive director of Women on 20s, a nonprofit grassroots organization with its own stamp, said that what Cooper did is perfectly legal. The bills will remain in circulation, she said, so long as the two round seals, serial number and any metallic ink are not stamped over.
“We have been aware of many creative efforts inspired by our campaign to hasten Harriet’s image into circulation and Dena Cooper’s is a particularly striking one,” Ades Stone said. “The goal of Women on 20s from the inception of our campaign in 2015 has been to inspire just this kind of grassroots activism to elevate the visibility of great women in American history.
“We applaud every effort to put women on paper currency, even if our current president does not see fit to make it a priority for the U.S. Treasury Department.”
Cooper isn’t the only Brooklyn activist swapping Jackson’s face for Tubman’s. Dano Wall, a Brooklyn artist, has also been stamping $20 bills and has made his stamp kit available for purchase.
Cooper said she was hopeful that other women would eventually be commemorated on currency. She suggested that one of America’s founding fathers get the boot next. “Benjamin Franklin wasn’t even a president,” she said, “so we can get rid of him next.”
Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.
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