It’s Harriet Tubman for the 20!

My childhood hero! Why do I love her so much?

In second grade, I was a white Yankee girl in Louisiana, bused to a Black school under Supreme Court order.

Desegregation, the sequel: where it was not enough to merely allow students to attend the nearest school. That order combined our two neighboring towns and school districts, added other districts, and affected the nation. I became a racial minority in a separate and not equal facility, with experiences ranging from terror to delight. (Will I ever finish my novel inspired by it?)

We had dedicated teachers of both races, and a small but potent library, where Black history was richly represented.

Harriet Tubman Library of Congress

We could not discuss race at school–the Klan’s invisible presence was a palpable threat–but I could read on the sly. I also read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle–I was 7, 8, and 9–but Harriet was real-life magical. Battle scarred warrior, escape artist, master of disguises, brilliant strategist, wilderness survivor, spy, and savior. She led 300 passengers through her line of the Underground Railroad, and never lost one. Her story gave me courage, and a passion for freedom.

Abraham Lincoln owned a whole shelf in that library, and Miss Harriet starred in a half-dozen biographies nearby. Now they will be neighbors in our currency.

I am glad Hamilton’s fans fought to keep him on the 10, because the 20 is even better and worth the wait. The 20 is the mother of currency: the one counterfeiters covet, cash machines dispense, and any establishment is willing to break. Ironically, Harriet Tubman does not completely replace that slave-holding, Native American-destroying Jackson. Instead, she bumps him to the back of the bill. He will be sent to the back of the train, to ride the coattails of an ultimate Freedom Rider, while we reflect on his part in history as well, and let Harriet be our face forward.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s Open Letter


Gwyn Nichols,

Happy Birthday, Reverend Jupiter Hammon!

Jupiter Hammon Address to the Negroes of New-York
Jupiter Hammon, "Address to the Negroes of New-York," 1787, image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Happy 300th birthday to Jupiter Hammon, believed to be the first published African-American author, who even gave fatherly advice to Phillis Wheatley:

 I pray the living God may be,
   The shepherd of thy soul;
His tender mercies still are free,
   His mysteries to unfold. 

Jupiter Hammon was a slave his entire life of about 95 years, through four generations of the Lloyd family. He was educated, and he was a preacher still remembered for “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New-York.” in 1787, (Hammon, Royster, ed).

This document begins with a preface by The Printers vouching for the author’s character (he “has been remarkable for his fidelity, and abstinence from those vices, which he warns his brethren against”) and the document’s authenticity, though it is “wrote in a better Stile than could be expected from a slave. . . . The manuscript wrote in his own hand, is in our possession. We have made no material alterations in it, except in the spelling, which we found needed considerable correction” (iv).

Here are a few of the passages I find specially striking:

“Yes my dear brethren, when I think of you, which is very often, and of the poor, despised and miserable state you are in, as to the things of this world, and when I think of your ignorance and stupidity, and the great wickedness of most of you, I am pained to the heart” (5).

“I have wanted to say something to you, to call upon you with the tenderness of a father and friend, and to give you the last, and I may say, dying advice, of an old man, who wishes your best good in this world, and in the world to come. But while I have such desires, a sense of my own ignorance, and unfitness to teach others, has frequently discouraged me from attempting to say any thing to you; yet when I thought of your situation, I could not rest easy” (6).

“Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free” (12).

“That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war. How much money has been spent, and how many lives has been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it in some measure, and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful, and to hope in his mercy. What may be done further, he only knows for known unto God are all his ways from the beginning. But this, my dear brethren is by no means, the greatest thing we have to be concerned about. Getting our liberty in this world, is nothing to having the liberty of the children of God.” (12-13).

“Those of you who can read I must beg you to read the Bible, and whenever you can get time, study the Bible, and if you can get no other time, spare some of your time from sleep, and learn what the mind and will of God is. But what shall I say to them who cannot read. This lay with great weight on my mind, when I thought of writing to my poor brethren, but I hope that those who can read will take pity on them and read what I have to say to them. In hopes of this I will beg of you to spare no pains in trying to learn to read. If you are once engaged you may learn. Let all the time you can get be spent in trying to learn to read. Get those who can read to learn you, but remember, that what you learn for, is to read the Bible. If there was no Bible, it would be no matter whether you could read or not. Reading other books would do you no good. But the Bible is the word of God, and tells you what you must do to please God; it tells you how you may escape misery, and be happy for ever” (13-14).

“Why should be spend our whole lives sinning against God: And be miserable in this world, and in the world to come. If we do thus, we shall certainly be the greatest fools. We shall be slaves here, and slaves forever” (17).



Hammon, Jupiter. “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley.“ The Poetry Foundation, from The Longman Anthology of Poetry (Pearson 2006)

Hammon, Jupiter. Paul Royster, editor. “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York (1787)” 2007. p. 5. Downloaded from


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011