The abolitionist’s outstretched arm invites the viewer to join her on a journey to freedom.
A 3-year-old girl on the Eastern Shore of Maryland became a sensation on social media this week after her grandmother, a local shopkeeper, posted a photograph of her reaching out to accept the invitation. Auriah Duncan, who goes by “Lovie,” touched the hand of Harriet Tubman in a mural of the abolitionist rendered on the brick wall of the Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Cambridge, Md.
“Lovie meets Harriet,” Tracy Kilgore Lynndee, the girl’s grandmother and co-owner of the handmade goods store Maiden Maryland, wrote in a Facebook post last week that was shared by the Harriet Tubman Byway, securing a national audience for the image. This week, it was featured on the “Today” show.
Lynndee said the 3-year-old became enamored of the portrait, painted by local artist Michael Rosato as part of the Tubman Byway, an effort to commemorate the anti-slavery activist in the state where she was born into bondage. Leaders of the effort said the painting had moved some viewers to tears.
“She quickly asked if she could give her a high five.” Lynndee told WTTG, “She reached out and placed her hand on the hand.”
Under plans unveiled three years ago by President Barack Obama’s treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, Lovie would have encountered Tubman’s visage each time she caught a glimpse of a $20 bill. Now, she will be in her teens before she handles a note bearing Tubman’s face.
Plans to redraw the currency, replacing the slaveholding president Andrew Jackson with the abolitionist leader, are being put off until at least 2026, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced on Wednesday. The new bill will not be in circulation before 2028, years after the departure of President Trump, who has venerated Jackson as his hero and criticized the redesign as “pure political correctness.”
Trump suggested in the spring of 2016 that Tubman, whom he called “fantastic,” instead grace a lesser denomination, such as the $2 bill.
“Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it’s very rough when you take somebody off the bill,” he said on the “Today” show in 2016. “Andrew Jackson had a history of tremendous success for the country.”
Mnuchin did not say whether Trump played a role in the determination. As for his own thinking, the treasury secretary said, “I’ve made no decision as it relates to that.”
The announcement of the delay at the very moment that new commemoration of Tubman was being hailed for its symbolic value made for a noteworthy contrast. The museum where the 3-year-old girl encountered the mural of the anti-slavery activist is among the stops on the Harriet Tubman Byway, a 125-mile self-guided driving tour of 36 sites in Caroline and Dorchester Counties that chart Tubman’s path from a slave to a conductor on the “Underground Railroad” to a scout, spy, nurse, and guerrilla soldier for the Union Army. She was known as the “Moses of her people.”
Leaders of the Byway project said they regretted the delay in the making of the new note but pledged to continue their efforts to honor Tubman’s legacy.
“We are sad to hear this, but in the meantime we will continue to share her story and celebrate her courage in other ways,” they wrote.
A reexamination of national iconography has led to the removal of many Confederate monuments and the erasure of names of numerous segregationists from schools, roads and parks. But Trump and some of his associates endorse a different orientation to the past, at times ready to defend figures whose promotion of explicit racial hierarchy places them out of step with contemporary values.
Trump has offered garbled and revisionist views on the struggle over slavery and abolition that still haunts American society. Most recently, the president reportedly implied in a conversation with Red Sox chairman Tom Werner that President Abraham Lincoln had lost the Civil War, as the sports executive recalled to reporters following a White House tour earlier this month. Two years ago, the descendants of Frederick Douglass offered the president a history lesson after he used language that appeared to imply that the abolitionist and orator, who died in 1895, was still alive.
More disturbing to some was Trump’s defense last month of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate States of America, as a “great general.” He offered that verdict on Lee as a justification for his statement in the summer of 2017 that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. In the days following the rally, which left one counterprotester dead, the president decried efforts to remove “beautiful statues and monuments.”
Mnuchin, resisting calls from his Yale classmates to resign over the president’s response to events in Charlottesville, tied the controversy to “culture wars” unfolding on college campuses. His own former dormitory on the Ivy League campus had recently been stripped of the name of John C. Calhoun, an intellectual forefather of the Confederacy who defended slavery as a “positive good.” Mnuchin said issues of naming and memory were “more complicated than we are led to believe by the mass media.”
So, too, some of the president’s staunchest allies in Congress and in governor’s mansions share his view of Confederate iconography.
Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican whom Trump has not condemned for a series of statements embracing white nationalism, used to display a Confederate battle flag in his office, even though more than 76,000 Iowans fought for the Union Army. Instead of seeking to scrub her state of its associations with the Confederacy, Sen. Cyndy Hyde-Smith, the Mississippi Republican who prevailed in a special election last year, introduced legislation as a state lawmaker to rename a stretch of highway “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.” The bill died in committee. And Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, last month signed a bill into law setting out severe penalties for desecrating Confederate monuments.
Elsewhere, the landscape has shifted, marked by an effort to replace tributes to apostles of slavery with memorials to those who resisted its yoke. In the finals days of his administration, Obama established the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, S.C. The site was re-designated as a national historic park in March 2019.
There has been new commemoration of Tubman in Maryland, where she was born a slave around 1820. Last year, the Baltimore City Council moved to rededicate a park to the conductor of the Underground Railroad, after removing four Confederate monuments the year before that.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, a destination on the Tubman Byway in Church Creek, Md., opened in 2017. The museum and education center in Cambridge was founded in the 1980s, but the finishing touches of the new mural are still being applied. Pigment hadn’t been applied to the subject’s hand when the young visitor reached out to touch it.
When Obama’s treasury secretary announced plans for the new note, he said Tubman was “not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.”
The mural’s lesson is similar. The message conveyed by his depiction of the abolitionist, with her outstretched arm, is one that desperately needs to be heard today, the artist told WMDT.
He said that what Tubman is telling her 21st-century audience, including the 3-year-old who reached out to meet her grasp, is, “You’re going to be safe. It’s going to be daunting and scary, but trust me. This is it.”