Feb 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Put Frederick Douglass on a U.S. currency bill

A portrait of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass. Photo: Kean Collection/Getty Images

Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says it's time to put abolitionist and Black writer Frederick Douglass on a U.S. currency bill — after Harriet Tubman is added to the $20 bill.

The big picture: Black intellectuals and activists have been pressing for more images of Black Americans in U.S. currency, public spaces, and national parks in recent years.

Driving the news: Gates told Axios that Douglass has already far outlasted the political and historical moment in which he lived and remains essential to the nation today.

  • "Frederick Douglass has assumed his place not only as one of America’s great orators but also as one of the writers of the nineteenth century."
  • "Was Douglass sometimes conservative, by today’s political standards Absolutely! Was he sometimes radical? Of course, that goes without saying."

The intrigue: Gates made his remarks as he launched the 8th season of the PBS "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” series.

  • This season, the series, which looks at the family history of celebrities and political leaders, will examine the backgrounds of Broadway stars Leslie Odom, Jr. and Nathan Lane.
  • Gates also was the executive producer of the recently released documentary on "Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches," which is streaming on HBO Max.

The backstory: Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey and into slavery in 1818, Douglass taught himself to read after receiving some lessons from a white wife of a slaveholder.

  • He escaped bondage with the help of his future wife, Anna, by disguising himself as a sailor. After moving to New Bedford, Mass, the couple took the last name Douglass.
  • His first autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," garnered international attention. He would go on to start his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star.

Reality check: It would take years, if not decades, to get Douglass on a U.S. currency bill as a commission would have to study it, design it, and introduce new anti-counterfeit measures for banking systems.

Between the lines: Tubman is scheduled to appear on a redesigned $20 bill scheduled for release in 2030.

  • A U.S. Treasury official told Axios that since a commission tasked with redesigning the $20 bill met in 2013 during the Obama Administration, the 2030 date has always been the target to test counterfeiting and safety protocols.
  • The 2030 date was set despite comments during the Trump administration that the Tubman bill would be delayed.

Details: 19th-century abolitionist Tubman was a well-known “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who led enslaved people to freedom.

  • She will replace Andrew Jackson, a slave owner and a president known for forcibly removing Native Americans through the "Trail of Tears."
  • Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Axios he strongly supports removing Jackson from the $20 bill.

Don't forget: Douglass was placed on the U.S. quarter in 2017 as part of the United States Mint's America the Beautiful Quarters Program.

  • Images on coins are determined by Congress, while those on bills go through a lengthy review by the Treasury and a special commission.
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