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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Women on the 20

You probably have heard about the campaign to replace President Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill with a woman. The effort began with a girl asking President Obama why there is no woman on any paper currency (or metal, for that matter), and a grassroots movement began to do so. Some 300,000 people participated in a recent ten-week poll between the four runner-ups of an earlier longer list, and the winner was announced Monday. She was not my choice, but more on that later.

The four originally had been three, two of whom were African American: Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Wilma Mankiller, the former chief of Oklahoma’s Cherokee tribe, was added after protests from Native Americans. My first thought was if we include that ethnic group, why not women with heritage from Asia or Latin America or even Europe? Beyond that, she was even younger than I am and not exactly a historical figure. She died in 2010, but there are other Native American women who achieved more, especially during the colonial era. I understood, though, that her supporters saw her as particular to Jackson, who built his career killing Cherokees and other Southern tribes. More on that later, too.

My choice was Eleanor Roosevelt. She was indeed “Mother to a Generation,” providing a strong female role model through the Great Depression and World War II. Because Franklin Roosevelt’s legs were useless after polio, she traveled widely to offer hope to the poor and the oppressed. She accepted the endless grief that right-wingers piled on when she became the first First Lady to champion the causes of the era’s Negroes, migrants, and others imprisoned by Depression poverty. Much earlier than Franklin, she understood the possibility of Nazi genocide, and she (vainly) urged the State Department to admit Jews who otherwise faced persecution and death. During the war, she sent thousands of personal letters to the families of soldiers she met and even made long distance calls at personal expense to tell mothers that she had seen their sons. Fluent in French, she went to war-torn Europe as soon as military leaders allowed her.

After her husband’s death, President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the United Nations, where the respect that international leaders had for her was obvious. The first meetings were in London, and she did an excellent job of mediating between bitter enemy nations. She forcefully insisted on setting ideals that moved beyond petty quarrels, and indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is primarily her work product. There was relatively little female presence at these early UN meetings, but she even managed to be successful on the use of gender-neutral nouns and pronouns in governing documents. Although a firm New Deal Democrat, she was not excessively partisan, and her dozens of books gave credit to Republicans when it was due. Yet like Hillary today, she faced critics who never would be satisfied, not even if God Almighty came down from the clouds to anoint her.

But as I said, Eleanor didn’t win. Probably too many people saw her as privileged – even though she sacrificed that and dedicated her life to the underprivileged. So the more I thought about the winner, the more I agree that she is a perhaps a better choice. Eleanor had infinitely more global influence, but Harriet Tubman had more personal courage than any historical figure I know – man or woman, white or black.

* * *

A child named Araminta was born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore about 1820; she was the granddaughter of slaves brought from Africa in the 1700s. Later she gave herself her mother’s name of Harriet. At thirteen, she suffered an irreparable injury when an angry overseer threw a two-pound weight at some one else and fractured her skull. Ever after, she would be handicapped by seizures and unpredictable attacks of coma-like sleep.

She married John Tubman, a free black man, in 1844, but remained in slavery; the union produced no children, and other than her surname, her husband was not an important factor in her life. Hearing rumors that she was about to be sold, she escaped in 1849 to Philadelphia, where especially Quakers harbored escaped slaves. She worked in a hotel and saved her money -- and the next year daringly went back to the slave state of Maryland, where she led her sister’s family out of Baltimore. She made two more trips the following year, liberating her brother and his family, as well as another group of eleven.

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, making it a crime for anyone – white or black, North or South – to assist a slave who was attempting to escape. Tubman defied the law, making at least nineteen such dangerous trips; she probably rescued some 300 people from bondage. In 1857, she had the special joy of bringing out her parents, who were in their seventies, to live their last days in freedom. She offered to do the same for her husband, but apparently satisfied with his life, he did not take the risk.

Although consistently described as shy and modest, she displayed nerves of steel and quick-witted intelligence on these missions. She could not read, but memorized landmarks and developed an uncanny sense of direction. She also worked out codes that she used with seemingly innocuous conversational Bible quotes and hidden meanings in hymns, so that what appeared to be pious passivity to whites actually delivered important information to blacks. Her keen mind several times rapidly devised ruses to divert the suspicious: perhaps the most famous was when she spent precious money to buy tickets for her group on a southbound train, knowing that the white man who was trailing them would believe that she was faithfully following an order from her master, as blacks bound for freedom would not ordinarily go south.

After the Fugitive Slave Act, she moved to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, which meant guiding those she liberated hundreds of miles. One of her great exploits was in Troy, New York, where she and her followers physically attacked guards who were holding an escaped slave and liberated him. The property loss to slave owners soon became so great that they “honored” this shy, small woman by offering some $40,000 in rewards for her capture. Called Moses by other blacks because she led her people to the Promised Land, Harriet Tubman trusted prayer but also carried a gun. More than once, she threatened to use it on quavering slaves who might betray the group for their personal benefit.

When the Union army took over the Carolina sea islands early in the Civil War, she moved there and acted as a spy and scout. Not surprisingly, though, military officials did not utilize her superb skills as much as they could have, and they certainly did not reward her appropriately. At the war’s end, this masterful intelligence agent supported herself by raising chickens and selling eggs at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

With tremendous stamina despite her lifelong brain injury, she lived until 1913. She never knew her exact birth date, but probably was 93 at death – and had outlived a second husband who was much younger than she. You can visit her last home and see her grave at Auburn, New York – a nice place to go during a Florida summer.

* * *

So I said I would return to Andrew Jackson. I’m certainly not going to kick up a fuss about removing him from the twenty, but this, too, merits context. It may be that his displacement is more or less an accident of the fact that his image happens to be on the twenty-dollar bill: the centennial of women’s right to vote comes up in 2020, and that sort of cache appeals to today’s PR folks. But it’s also important to realize that Andrew Jackson was the first president who was born poor, and that class status may haunt him still.

Orphaned at fourteen, he found shelter by enlisting in the American army during the Revolution. More than that, his frontier family, including parents who had been born in Ireland, were killed by an alliance of British and Native American forces in the Carolina backcountry. The war ended in 1783, and in 1784, the teenager trekked to civilization to begin the study of law. Even though he had virtually no formal schooling, he passed the Tennessee bar exam in 1787 and was elected as a Nashville prosecutor. From there, he went on to higher office and to renewed military service during and after the War of 1812.

You can follow any number of biographies from that point, but what always has interested me most about Jackson is his marriage. He wed Rachel Donelson Robards in 1791, and they were devoted for life. Her family was prestigious, and her father, a friend of George Washington, led other prominent Virginians to Nashville in 1779. The Revolution still was underway; this was British territory; and the four-month trip by canoe was dangerous.

Rachel was twelve then, and she married Lewis Robards at eighteen. He turned out to be paranoid and violent, but women could not sue for divorce in that era. After five years of unhappy marriage, she fled from his brutality and lived with her widowed mother, who had opened a boarding house. Andrew Jackson also lived there.

The story gets complex, but the important part is that both believed that Robards had divorced her when they wed in Mississippi. Robards had moved to Kentucky by then, and the law there required a two-part action for divorce. He had only completed the first part, however, and when he finally got around to filing for the second, he accused her of adultery. The Jacksons were able to re-marry in 1794, but for the rest of their lives, his political enemies called her a bigamist.

She hid herself at the plantation outside of Nashville that she named “The Hermitage.” She ran it successfully while he was gone on endless military and political trips; at their thirtieth anniversary, she estimated that they spent no more than one-fourth of their married life together. The only time she lived elsewhere was four months in Pensacola, where she was Florida’s first First Lady. (She recorded her impressions of Florida, and you can read about it in my new book – see the website for the University Press of Florida.) When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, Rachel had a heart attack and died. I always have been convinced that the cause was anxiety about moving to Washington.

So you can go to Tennessee’s cool mountains and visit her grave, too. Andrew wrote an epitaph for his beloved, a paean of more than a hundred words. On his own tombstone, he specified that nothing be engraved except his name.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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