Anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman will be face of the $20 - first black to appear on U.S. paper currency and first woman in more than a century

Harriet Tubman on $20 bill
Abolitionist Harriet Tubman's image will appear on a new series of $20 bills, becoming the first African-American to appear on U.S. paper currency and the first woman in more than a century, the Treasury Department announced Wednesday.

In replacing replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, the Treasury Department abandoned a previous plan to have a woman replace founding father Alexander Hamilton on the $10.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the about-face came in response to an unexpected show of support for Hamilton in the weeks after he announced that plan last June — a response fueled, in part, by the popularity of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical based on Hamilton's life by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
"The show has certainly caught people's imagination, and I think it’s a great thing," Lew told USA TODAY. "What we’ve been doing on the currency and what they’ve been doing on the show were really quite complementary."
But just as important was a book Lew read early on in his quest to find the woman most worthy of being honored on U.S. currency: Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, published just last year. What he found, he said, was a different Tubman than he learned about in school.

Clinton said Tubman is a much more multi-dimensional figure than she was portrayed as in the children's books that defined her image for decades. "I think most people are unaware of the full dimensions of her Civil War career. I'm a Civil War historian, and I was unaware," said Clinton, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "It took her 30 years to get her pension from the government, because she was a spy and a scout and she worked behind enemy lines."

The $5, $10 and $20 bills will all be redesigned over the next four years, but will be put into production at various times over the next decade.

The long-awaited currency redesign will have a cascading effect on bills of all denominations over the next decades, as new security features are introduced to make the bills harder to counterfeit. New bills will also have tactile features to make them easier for blind citizens to distinguish.

And, Lew said, the redesign will affect the fronts and backs of each denomination. "We want people to pay attention to the whole bill," he said. Among the changes announced:
► President Lincoln will remain on the front of the $5 bill, but the image of the Lincoln Memorial on the back will be redesigned to depict historic events that happened there: Opera singer Marian Anderson's 1939 concert and Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech.

► The back of the $10 bill will tell the story of the women's suffrage movement, which culminated in the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. Among the women to be honored on the back of that bill: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.

► To make room for Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, Jackson will be moved to the back where he'll be incorporated into the existing image of the White House. Lew said that image could depict the statue of Jackson riding horseback in Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
Jackson, a democratic populist who opposed the national banking system, has seen his stock fall in recent years because he owned slaves and persecuted native Americans.

When completed, the currency changes will mark the biggest overhaul of the look of U.S. currency since 1928, when the current system of "dead presidents" was designed.

President Obama launched the effort in 2014, when he said he had gotten a letter from a girl from Massachusetts saying women should appear on currency. Obama called it "a pretty good idea."

While Congress maintains authority over coins under the Constitution, the Treasury secretary has the legal authority to design paper currency — except for the $1 bill, where Congress requires a portrait of President Washington. And according to a memo obtained by TheWall Street Journal, Lew considered putting women's voting rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony on the $10 bill early last year.

He then changed course and decided to ask for public comment about which woman should be on the bill, and the resulting feedback from social media campaigns forced him to delay a decision until this year.
"We said we were going to listen to people, and we actually listened to people. And there was a legitimate concern about what bill a woman goes on the front of, and what story we had to tell," Lew said.

"I will take credit for this. I had a kind of 'A-ha!' moment where I said, 'We’re thinking too small. We're thinking about one square inch of one bill,'" he told USA TODAY. "We had this idea that if you went bigger, you’d be able to accomplish a lot of the things that we’d really like to do, tell more stories, honor more than one women."
Harriet Tubman
Credit: Gregory Korte/USA Today