In 2020, the centennial of women’s suffrage, Harriet Tubman will become the first woman in more than a century to appear on U.S. paper currency, replacing Andrew Jackson on the front of the twenty-dollar bill. A recent PPP poll found that while most North Carolinians view Tubman positively, not everyone is in favor of her enshrinement on the twenty. Nearly 70 precent of Democrats are, but nearly 80 percent of Republicans aren’t. They’ll all get their wish, as Jackson will stay on the reverse side of the bill.
That seems telling to me. In a politically divided state that has been making national news as an intolerant, backward place, we still have our pastour slave masters, our Andrew Jacksonson our backs. But Tubman faces forward to the future, calling on us to remember North Carolina’s legacy of liberty at a crucial time. Before she was a suffragist, Tubman had already entered history as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, making at least nine solo trips to rescue some seventy people from enslavement and freeing hundreds more as a scout and intelligencer for the Union Army. And North Carolina, which nurtured more Abolitionist societies than any other state, was also the birthplace of the Underground Railroad.
In early-nineteenth-century Guilford County, New Garden (present-day Greensboro) was home to a large Methodist and Quaker community of farming families. Many, like the Coffin family, were religiously inclined toward abolition. Due to labor scarcity, whites and slaves in New Garden, as in much of the South, often worked side by side. Though the work was social, with songs and stories to pass the time, this integration didn’t always extend beyond it.
One day in late 1813, the Coffins, travelers, and slaves worked to finish the harvest at the neighboring farm of Reverend David Caldwell, a hero of the Revolutionary War. That evening, when the other white people went in to dinner, fifteen-year-old Levi Coffin did something unusual: he stayed behind to talk to the slaves of one Mr. Holland, a slave dealer who had stopped for lodging.
Levi, a self-proclaimed abolitionist since age seven, met Stephen, who was freeborn, and had just completed his term of indenture to the Lloyds of Philadelphia. Stephen had been working alone, as a drover, when he was overpowered, captured, and sold to Holland. Moved by the injustice, the Coffins wrote to the Lloyds, who quickly arrived in Greensboro to help. Stephen was eventually found in Georgia, where Holland had sold him, and, after the Lloyds filed suit, Stephen was freed.
It was Stephen’s story, and others like it, that led the Coffin family to found what historian Andrew David Caldwell, a descendent of the reverend, calls the Underground Railroad’s first station, in 1818, in the dense thicket between their land and Caldwell’s. Though Quakers had been informally assisting runaways for some time, a tunnel excavated in the 1970s is believed to be that first station. In the decades the Underground Railroad operated before the end of the Civil War, seventy-five thousand African-Americans fled the slave states, aided by likely and unlikely alliesfree blacks, other slaves, Quakers, even slave-holding whites like Caldwell. Levi Coffin helped guide more than two thousand runaways to freedom.
After Reconstruction, opportunities for African-Americans temporarily grew in North Carolina. Upward mobility wasn’t necessarily the norm, but it was possible, and there were at least thirty African-American legislators in North Carolina between 1869 and 1901. But by the early twentieth century, the pendulum had swung the other way. From the 1920s, when Ku Klux Klan membership peaked, until 1970, five million African-Americans left the South.
Today that tide is turning again. The 2010 census showed that for the first time in decades, the majority of African-Americans live in the South. New York City still has the largest African-American population, but Charlotte’s is higher as a percentageand growing. These changes and others in North Carolina necessitate new conversations about diversity and politics.
Just as we led the colonies to independence in the American Revolution, birthed the Underground Railroad, and elected African-American representatives in the antebellum period, we now have an opportunity to lead again. We must harness our revolutionary lineage to challenge our voter I.D. laws, HB 2, and the gerrymandering that produces representatives who fail to represent us. By the time Tubman, a former slave, finally graces the front of the twenty, let’s make sure it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, not how far we still have to go.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Jackson Reaction”