Got change for a $20?
Even though I love the Netflix series “House of Cards,” I’m no Frank Underwood fan. What a venal, ruthless snake he is. I’ve never met a TV character more conniving, so willing to step on and squash others than Underwood. He’s despicable.
But he acts nobly – or pretends to do so, which is more in keeping with his character – in episode 8 of the second season when, as vice president, he has Andrew Jackson’s portrait removed from the White House room in which he’s meeting delegates from an Indian tribe seeking federal recognition. The fact that he plays the recognition as a card in his game to steal the presidency notwithstanding, his having Jackson’s portrait removed shows a sensitivity, as calculated as it may have been, to his guests’ disdain for the seventh president of the United States.
Jackson, you may recall, reaped a whole lot of havoc and heartbreak in Western North Carolina when he signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans west of Mississippi River and dislocated the native Cherokee Indians from their homes in the mountains that surround us. It’s thought that a few thousand of the 16,000 Cherokee who were removed died during their forced march to Oklahoma, a march remembered by the sad moniker The Trail of Tears.
So while replacing Jackson’s portrait on the front of the $20 bill might more appropriately go to a leader of the American Indian resistance, it’s a major consolation that an escaped slave to worked to free other slaves is replacing him. Lashed as a slave, Harriet Tubman, a leading abolitionist, set aside her own safe passage north to return to the South many times to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a dangerous route as perilous as The Trail of Tears.
A scout and a spy for the Union Army, she led a unit that free 700 slaves in South Carolina. Revered for her work, after the war she remarried (her first husband didn’t follow her to freedom) and moved to a small plot of land – her own - in Auburn, New York. When she died in 1913, she was buried with military honors.
That the nation honors such a person, someone born into a corrupt system who returned to it time after time in the defense of fellow sufferers, is long overdue. Tubman would likely be the first to say that she wished there had been no reason for someone like her to be so honored.
But it makes us a better people when we uphold those who inspire us to greatness, who use their lives to make others better. We as Americans are honored to count people like Harriet Tubman among us. We can only hope to be her peer.