NEW YORK (AP) – Growing up in Oklahoma, Becky Hobbs noticed some of her Cherokee elders wouldn’t even touch a $20 bill because they so despised Andrew Jackson. To this day, the 66-year-old songwriter pokes him in the face whenever she gets one.
For Hobbs and many other Native Americans, the U.S. Treasury’s decision to replace Jackson’s portrait with Harriet Tubman’s is a hugely meaningful change.
A slave-owning president who forced Cherokees and many other Indian nations on deadly marches out of their southern homelands, being succeeded by an African-American abolitionist who risked her life to free others? Unprecedented.
“We’re just thrilled that Andrew Jackson has had a removal of his own,” said Hobbs. “The constant reminder of Andrew Jackson being glorified is sad and sickening to our people.”
The Obama administration’s decision is groundbreaking in many ways – there hasn’t been a woman on paper money in over a century, and there’s never been an African-American. Change also is coming to other bills: The history-making appearances of Martin Luther King, Jr., and opera singer Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial will be displayed on the back of the $5 bill, and suffragettes marching for the right of women to vote will appear on the steps of the U.S. Treasury, on the back of the $10 bill.
But Tubman’s arrival is the one many people have been hoping for, much to the dismay of Jackson supporters, and it comes amid ongoing, emotional debates about other symbols Americans choose to honor, like the Confederate flags and statues being removed from public life in places across the South.
“Every time you pick up that $20 bill, it’s a reminder that we can’t ignore or pretend like we didn’t have 400 years of slavery,” said Amrita Myers, a historian at Indiana University who focuses on 19th century black women.
“Not only is this going to be the first African-American historical figure on U.S. currency, but it’s a woman specifically from the era of slavery,” Myers explained. “We still live in a nation that doesn’t like to acknowledge its history of racial and gender oppression. Black women experience those things simultaneously.”
Making the change on currency is especially powerful, said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native rights organization.
“A country usually puts forward its best when it shows the world the people on a stamp or on money,” said Harjo, who is both Cheyenne and Muskogee. “They’re really saying, ‘this is what we want you to think of us … these are our best people.'”
Compared to all his predecessors, Jackson, who served from 1828-1836, arrived at the White House as a self-made everyman whose populist message resonated with a country still solidifying its democracy a half-century after declaring independence. But for Native Americans, Jackson stands for genocide – the polar opposite of a unifying figure.
“He’s not the poster boy for America, and it’s good to see it changed,” said Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Baker points out that a fourth of the Cherokees died after Jackson and his troops forced them onto what became known as the Trail of Tears. Other tribes that were forced to move to reservations in Oklahoma and beyond include the Seminoles, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Muscogee-Creek.
Many Americans still celebrate Jackson for his victory over the British during the War of 1812 and for his life as an everyman who reached the pinnacle of power.
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump is among them – he defended Jackson on Thursday, saying replacing him with Tubman is “pure political correctness.” He and former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested putting Tubman on the $2 bill instead.
“We won’t stop promoting his legacy,” said Howard Kittell, president and CEO of the Andrew Jackson Foundation, which operates Jackson’s historic home, The Hermitage, in Tennessee.
“He’s a complicated guy, especially when you look at him and assess him from a perspective of 20th Century values. We don’t try to varnish over the fact that he was a slaveholder and helped push the Indian Removal Act through Congress. But within his historical period, that was within the mainstream thinking.”
Not quite, said Ed Baptist, history professor at Cornell University.
“At the time, there were alternatives, there were congressmen who suggested alternatives. The Indian Removal Act was contested, there were lots of folks who opposed it.”
Plus, Baptist said, Jackson’s interest in removing Native Americans from the southeast was in expanding cotton plantations and the slave trade, which makes putting Tubman on the denomination even more appropriate.
“Harriet Tubman is what’s good about America,” he said. “Andrew Jackson is what’s problematic about our history.”