Time is money.
Benjamin Franklin preached this long before his face ended up on the $100 bill. Perhaps a more fitting aphorism for Harriet Tubman is this: Money takes time.
Federal authorities’ plan to feature Tubman on the $20 bill has years to go before making its way into Americans’ wallets. According to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing, the redesigned bill featuring the Maryland abolitionist won’t be ready until 2030.
Here’s what you need to know about the plan and why it’s taking so darn long.
Origins of the Tubman $20 bill
Federal authorities started talking in 2011 about a timeline in the following two decades to update the banknotes valued at $5 up to $100. A few years later in 2014, a little girl in Massachusetts had an idea.
“Dear Mr. President,” Sofia wrote in a letter to then-head of state Barack Obama. The 8-year-old wanted to know why there aren’t many women on U.S. dollars and coins.
“I think there should be more women on a dollar/coin for the United States,” she wrote in the letter. After all, there would be no men without women.
Sofia, whose last name was withheld from news reports at the time, enclosed with her message a list of notable American women for consideration. Tubman made the list.
The abolitionist rose to fame after she liberated herself from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1849 by following the North Star out of the state. Tubman later returned to Maryland to free more people from slavery.
Obama wrote back to the Massachusetts girl that he liked her idea. Later, a senior adviser in his administration called Sofia to tell her federal authorities would begin work on a plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill while moving President Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder whose administration removed thousands of Native Americans from their lands, to the back of the bill.
All about the Harriets
Currency design falls under the Bureau of Engraving & Printing’s purview. The agency declined an interview request. The redesign remains on schedule and is expected to be complete in 2030, spokeswoman Lydia Washington said in an email.
Still, some lawmakers have sought to speed the process up. In 2022, Joe Biden signed the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Commemorative Coin Act ordering the U.S. Mint to issue commemorative coins. Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Democrat from Ohio, in June sponsored the Woman on the Twenty Act, which would require all $20 bills printed after Dec. 31, 2026, to feature a portrait of Tubman on the front face of the bill.
Some Maryland lawmakers have also called for Tubman to appear on the 20. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat who represents Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and portions of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, said in a statement he’s proud the next generation of Americans will see a design featuring an abolitionist and Maryland native.
“Harriet Tubman’s legacy goes far beyond our state,” Hoyer said in the statement. “I look forward to having her story enshrined forever on our paper currency.”
Rep. David Trone, a Democrat who represents much of Western Maryland in Congress, supports Beatty’s legislation to put Tubman on $20 bills in 2027.
“As a Marylander, I am incredibly invested in replacing Andrew Jackson on the 20 with Harriet Tubman – it’s an endeavor that is long, long overdue,” he said in a statement. Trone has urged the Biden administration and its Treasury Department to make the change “as soon as possible,” he said.
More money, more problems
About a decade has passed since Sofia mailed her letter. The Bureau of Engraving & Printing said it needs time to develop security features.
Federal authorities say the primary purpose of the redesign is to produce notes resistant to increasingly sophisticated counterfeit attacks.
The bureau specially formulates and blends black, green, metallic and color-shifting inks. The linen-cotton blend of paper comes with red and blue fibers distributed randomly throughout to make imitation more difficult. Paper for the $20 bill also comes with specific watermarks and security threads.
“The currency design process is complex and significant testing is required for the notes to be production ready,” Washington said in an email. Once production is underway, the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System sets the dates for issuing the redesigned notes.