February 1, 1978: Antislavery crusader and Civil War veteran Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp, the first in the Post Office’s Black Heritage Series. Tubman’s appearance on stamps was emblematic both of the progress made in recognizing African Americans’ contributions to American history and of the ongoing effort to put abolitionists on equal footing with slaveowners in the nation’s historical canon.
Tubman was a singular figure of the abolition movement, an enslaved woman who escaped captivity in Maryland and made at least 19 trips back to free more enslaved peoples. Tubman is estimated to have helped several hundred enslaved people find freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad and is said to have “never lost a passenger.” During the Civil War, she freed 700 more when she led Union forces on a raid on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina. In her later life, though she had little money of her own, Tubman worked to house and feed the poor and became an important figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. Despite these extraordinary efforts, which earned her the epithet “the Moses of her people,” Tubman did not receive a pension for her services in the war until 1889 and died with little to her name.
READ MORE: 6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad
Her deeds were not forgotten, however, and in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements there was a push to recognize overlooked figures like Tubman. Her inclusion in the Black Heritage Series put her alongside figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington and Jackie Robinson and spread her image around the country. In 2016, following years of calls from activists, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman’s face would replace that of President Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner and avowed white supremacist, on the twenty-dollar bill. The following year, Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, delayed the switch, saying, “We’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.” In January 2021, President Biden’s administration announced they were taking steps to move forward with the redesign.
READ MORE: Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist