Davis’s great-grandfather was Tubman’s uncle and no doubt learned of her exploits 150 years ago when she slipped bondage and led hundreds of slaves to freedom on multiple harrowing trips into and out of the South. Moses, as Tubman came to be known, then served the Union during the Civil War as spy, scout, nurse, and cook, and even battlefield commander.
Davis was cautiously optimistic about her relative’s chances to be honored on the greenback.
“It had been in the air, a lot of hype, then at some point it fell back and it looked like she wouldn’t make it, so I never thought of it in any kind of way until this latest information,” she said. “But it’s not supposed to be until years from now so, I hope they do. In some ways Harriet Tubman has taken on this persona, but I think this will make people dig a little deeper into who she really was.”
Tubman’s addition on the $20 will be accompanied by currency redesigns featuring Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, Marian Anderson, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Davis said said she feels it reflects not only a more multicultural demographic, but the growing acceptance of a more holistic history of the United States.
“It sounds as though there is a general feeling that something on the currency should reflect the reality of what is true in this country.”
It wasn’t always that way, of course.
Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Davis said there was very little about Tubman in schoolbooks.
“What was there was very limited and one-sided. It wasn’t until I went to college that I found that history was a little more interesting because they filled it out more, even though there weren’t many blacks in college then,” said Davis, 79, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Tyler School of Art, Temple University.
Of course, Davis learned early on that she and Tubman were related.
“I was pretty young when I first heard,” said Davis, who still lives in Bristol. “Mother would mention it, but never went into it with a lot of energy because at that time it was, ‘Make sure your children got a lot of education.’ So, there was a sense of we should not be dwelling on the idea of being held back by slavery.
“But we knew Harriet was part of the family. My grandfather would say, I remember when she came to visit. He said she called herself “Hat.” When my cousin was in high school she wrote a paper about Tubman and the teacher refused it, saying she was lying. Our grandfather had to go in to verify it. So, there was a sense of distance in terms of who could be related to this icon.”
Born between 1815 and 1825, Tubman was named Araminta by her parents Harriet and Benjamin, but changed her name before escaping into Pennsylvania so she would be hard to track. Tubman, who married twice and bore no children, died in 1913 in Auburn, New York, where she was buried with military honors.
Davis, who sometimes portrays Tubman in educational events nationwide, said Tubman’s audacity is in the family’s DNA.
“I know it’s in my mother’s genes,” she chuckled. “In Bristol they didn’t encourage blacks to go to college, but I and my five siblings all did. Mom was the first black member of the school board in Bristol. She only went to the 11th grade—dad 8th or 9th—but she was highly intelligent and could correct you in a language that showed you she was intelligent and convinced of what she knew.”
Davis has been ensconced since she was young in African American history and culture, even in mostly white Bucks County.
“The inside of my house looks like a museum, I have so many books and things,” she said.
She’s on the board of the county’s African American Historical and Cultural Society. A hallmark of that organization’s work is the establishment of a free-standing statue of Tubman on the waterfront of Lions Park. A June 25 celebration will mark the 10th anniversary of the unveiling of the monument, built at long last with state and local help.
Tubman is not known to have ever visited Bristol, where Davis has a 96-year-old aunt. Most of Tubman’s remaining clan lives in Maryland and New York. Still, Davis said the statue acknowledges the contributions of blacks as well as whites to the cultural fabric of Bristol.
“Harriet deserved recognition and reflected the sensibility of people who were persistent in their pursuit of a greater sense of freedom,” she said.
So, how many Tubman Twenties will Davis stash away?
“We’ll certainly get some,” she chuckled. “Whether I’ll be a collector, that I don’t know.”