US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Aug. 15, 2022: Tubman coins approved

Commemorative coins depicting Harriet Tubman will be released years before the $20 Federal Reserve note featuring her makes its debut.

Original images courtesy of the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

After years of waiting, we will finally get a portrait of Harriet Tubman on legal tender U.S. currency. However, the portrait, or portraits, will appear on three 2024 commemorative coins rather than on the much-discussed, long-delayed revision of the $20 Federal Reserve note.

President Biden’s signing into law on Aug. 3 of the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Commemorative Coin Act, Public Law 117-163, means that the escaped slave turned abolitionist leader will finally be honored, though not yet in the way envisioned when the Obama administration’s Jacob Lew authorized the placement of Tubman’s portrait on the next generation $20 note.

At that time (April 2016), many anticipated that the Tubman note would enter circulation in just a few years. Those of us familiar with the glacial pace of Federal Reserve note redesign knew that any unveiling of a new design, much less its release into circulation, would take many years. The indifference and even hostility to the proposal during the Trump presidency made the release of such a note doubtful, and future political change could yet derail the design changes recommended by Lew for the $20 note, and for future versions of the $5 and $20 notes as well.

As we have explained before, redesigning a Federal Reserve note takes a long time, and a lot of players are involved in any decisions made about changes. Security devices have to be selected and tested, and designs have to be changed to serve inclusion of the devices. The Federal Reserve, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Secret Service, Treasury Department and private partners all play a role in what a note looks like.

For coinage designs, the number of players is much smaller, and security devices are rarely a factor. The U.S. Mint will develop designs for the Tubman commemorative coins, and members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and Commission of Fine Arts will review them, making recommendations. The Treasury secretary will have the final say on the designs.

The coins should go on sale in early 2024, years before the expected 2030 release of a new $20 Federal Reserve note, if a Tubman note ever becomes a reality.


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