New Faces on the $20, $10 and $5 Bills: Who Are They and What Made Them Famous?

In 2020, the new $20 bill will feature Harriet Tubman. Also appearing on new U.S. currency will be Lucretia Mott and Eleanor Roosevelt. All three are subjects of my biographies—and the topic of a talk I gave at Petworth Library, here in Washington, DC, not too long ago.

The new bills were supposed to mark the first time ever that a woman would be depicted on a paper bill. Or so I thought. The New York Times recently reported that Martha Washington’s portrait “briefly graced” the $1 silver certificate in the late 19th century. (A silver certificate was paper that could be redeemed for its full value in silver coins.)

When the announcement of the new currency was made Harriet Tubman received some much deserved recognition. Many wondered why the wait until 2020 to replace Old Hickory (aka Andrew Jackson).

Harriet was born Aminta Ross in 1822 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As young as eight, she was hired out to her master’s neighbor. She was taught to weave and catch muskrats. She worked long hours in good health and bad a task. She was not allowed to rest whether sick with measles or running a fever. Harriet missed her family and, at night, cried herself to sleep.

At the age of twenty-seven, Harriet traveled north to freedom, making her escape along the underground railroad, walking by night through forests, and sleeping on beds of pine needles once daylight broke. She would return to Maryland more than ten times helping to free close to eighty family members, including her parents and brothers, friends, and strangers in need.

Later, during the Civil War, she acted as spy, nurse and scout. She would become an amazing orator and to campaign for women’s rights. In her later years she ran a home for the aged in Auburn, New York. She made friends from all walks of life, including William Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Martha Wright, William Seward, and John Brown. Her reputation preceded her: She was brave and smart and cunning—warm and funny.

Lucretia Mott, the Quaker abolitionist, who will appear on the back of the $10 bill, was raised to take risks and be self-reliant. Her seafaring father was often gone for months at a time leaving his wife and Lucretia to care for the younger children, tend to the house, and make ends meet. She went on to attend a Quaker boarding school and later spoke out against slavery and for women’s rights. As an early promoter of non-violent conflict resolution, she organized the Pennsylvania Peace Society. She too became a well-known orator (and also gained fame for her blackberry pudding).

We’re to find Eleanor Roosevelt, along with Marian Anderson, and Martin Luther King, on the back of the $5 bill.

As a child, Eleanor was called “Granny”—she was shy and serious and she didn’t fit in, or so she thought. Her father drank too much and abandoned his children. Both parents died before her tenth birthday. Eleanor was sent to boarding school in England where the headmistress inspired her to love history and learn about different cultures. When she returned to New York, Eleanor worked in a settlement house, took an interest in politics, and taught government, drama, and history. As First Lady she started to write a column called “My Day.” This column was published six times a week for twenty-seven years in as many as sixty-two newspapers.

Perhaps Eleanor’s greatest achievement came after she was widowed. President Truman asked her to serve as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. As chair of the UN Human Rights Commission she was given the task of heading the committee to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document assured the freedom of religion, education, and equal pay, as well as a ban on torture and was incorporated into the constitutions of nineteen African countries.

When Eleanor died, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, captured her spirit saying: “For she would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”

These three women, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lucretia Mott and Harriet Tubman have much in common. They were brave, daring, and independent. They never stopped learning. For them life was always an adventure. They fought for equal rights—for women, for African Americans, and for children.

Eleanor told young people, “Stand up and be counted, even when it makes one unpopular,” Lucretia Mott and Harriet Tubman might very well have said the same.