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Honoring Harriet Tubman and Other Historic Women

Harriet Tubman will be honored on the front of the $20 bill, as announced by the Treasury Department.

Cokie Roberts, political commentator for NPR and for ABC News and author of Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 (Harper Perennial, 2016), discussed Washington, D.C. and the experiences, influence, and contributions of its women during one of the most dramatic periods in America’s history. Roberts has been advocating for a woman on the bill, most recently for Alexander Hamilton's wife Elizabeth.

Cokie Roberts: still a chance Tubman won't make it to the $20. "For women in American history, it's been one broken promise after another."

— Brian Lehrer Show (@BrianLehrer) April 21, 2016

And Patricia Turner, folklorist, executive director of The Reinvention Center, and the Dean and Vice Provost at UCLA, explained why she suggests using the image on the left below rather than the image on the right.

(MPI/Getty Images)

Here's how Dr. Turner explains it:

“This ‘matches’ the image of men on money who all have on formal dress and are depicted in their prime. Many of the others run of her evoking claims of looking like a mammy or ‘Aunt Jemima.’ I personally think a head wrap is a perfectly dignified, functional garment and that there should be no shame about the fact that black women wore them. However, in the late 19th and much of the 20th century, the head wrap became a marker of caricature of a black woman.”

Excerpt: Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington by Cokie Roberts


“Oh you Rascal, I am overjoyed to see you,” Varina Davis greeted Francis Preston Blair when he arrived in Richmond in early January. For his part, Blair reported that the First Lady of the Confederacy “Never looked as well in her life, stout but fairer well dressed & even a better talker than ever.” Elizabeth Blair Lee had received periodic reports of her friend over the years, but here was a first-hand account from her father, back from a secret mission for the Union. For some time the newspaper publisher Horace Greeley had been encouraging the senior Blair to use his connections with both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to try to initiate peace talks. The carnage on the battlefields had reached such horrendous numbers that even dedicated Unionists were looking for some way to end the war. So Blair devised the excuse of going to Richmond to see if he could locate some important papers missing from his house at Silver Spring after the Confederates had partied there.

Lincoln, who trusted the old newspaperman and thought there would be no harm in him sounding out Jefferson Davis, issued Blair passes to go through Union lines to Richmond and return, though the family was nervous about the seventy-three year setting out in such cold weather. “He feels that tis a call of duty & that no one must now shrink from that in these days of trial & trouble,” Lizzie fretted, “& will not return until he sees my Oakland patient for her good & ours I hope.” She knew that her husband could decipher her code--he would remember how Lizzie had nursed the terribly sick Varina Davis when they all spent a summer together in Oakland a few long years ago. Despite the efforts at secrecy, word of Blair’s trip got out and Lizzie found herself quizzed at parties but “luckily most people begin with the story about his papers,” so that ruse seemed to be working, “the Rebel papers announce his arrival in Richmond.” While he was there, Blair presented a far-fetched scheme whereby North and South would pause the war to come together to challenge the French who had installed a puppet regime in Mexico. The unauthorized-by-anyone proposal provided an opening for further talks and Blair came home with the response from Davis saying that he would send Commissioners to Washington “with a view to secure peace between the two countries.”

Her father arrived “overwhelmed with the excitement & fatigue of the past 10 days,” to a relieved Lizzie who felt “no small sense of joy to know that he is in his own bed & sleeping with Mother by his side happier than I have known her to be for sometime past.” Refusing as always to recognize the concept of “two countries,” Lincoln dispatched Blair back to Davis with the message that the President of the United States would receive commissioners “with a view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.” With that missive in hand, “Another visit to my Oakland patients is to be made,” Lizzie confided to Phil, “I hope it will cure all their maladies.” Her attempts at communicating in code were comical--it was the height of the social season and everywhere she went people were talking about her father’s meetings and pumping her for information. To one pointed inquiry: “I replied I knew nothing of the Davis’ since the war & descanted on Mrs. Davis as I knew her tone, her wit& etc.” The newspapers were full of Blair intrigue, though no one knew what it might be.

Speculation about the mission was just one of many distractions that January in post-election Washington. The annual New Year’s “squeeze,” held on January 2 because the 1st was a Sunday, revealed the toll taken on the White House by the Lincolns’ open door policy of allowing anyone to wander around the mansion. The rooms that Mary had so splendidly refurbished at such great cost now looked shabby and shamefully vandalized. Tourists and invited guests alike not only stained the settees with dirty shoes and ruined the rugs with tobacco juice, they actually carved up the carpets and curtains, cutting out large swaths of fabric as souvenirs. “The edges of the carpets have been snipped off wherever they could be got at by scissors or knife, and so presented the appearance of having been nibbled at by a regiment of rats in pursuit of winter-bedding,” Lois Adams informed the readers of the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, “Last fall from the drapery of one window in the Green Room silk enough had been abstracted to make a good sized apron.” A government clerk herself, Mrs. Adams was horrified to discover that one of the perpetrators of the pilferage was “a salaried clerk in one of the Government Departments!” When the man was fired from his job, “He proved himself a genuine son of Adam,” laughed the moonlighting reporter, “he said, ‘The women who were with me, they tempted me and I did steal.’”

Another group of women arrived at the White House with a more constructive agenda item. Deputized by a protest meeting in Philadelphia to call on President Lincoln the women came to petition for the restoration of their former pay scale at the Arsenal there. They had been working directly for the government making uniforms for the soldiers but the military brass decided to contract out the work, and the contractors were cutting both the number of assignments and the pay for each item so the women were making much less money than they had been. Political action was called for, they decided at the meeting arranged by the association they had organized in a type of labor-union. Newspapers covered the meeting and printed the series of resolutions the women adopted, including: “Resolved, That we appeal to Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, in whom we recognize an honest man, the noblest work of God, and trust and firmly believe he will have the arsenal work restored.” A committee was appointed and the very next day they came to Washington to meet with the President. They succeeded in extracting a message from Lincoln to the office of the Quartermaster General with the instruction that “if he could administer his department as to secure employment for the women at the wages ordinarily paid, he would regard it as a personal favor, provided he could do so without interfering with the public interest or disturb private contracts.” The direct intervention of the President did improve the women’s situation, at least for a while.

The war and its implications for workers no longer topped the city’s conversations when the Smithsonian Institute caught fire. “The loss is very serious, including the lecture-room, the philosophical instrument apartment and most of the valuable instruments,” the New York Times reported on January 25, the day after the destruction of a large part of the cultural center built from the legacy of the Englishman James Smithson. Lois Adams had been looking at paintings in one of the exhibition halls just minutes before “the roof over that part fell crashing in, and the immense room with all its contents, was one seething mass of flames.” Crowds gathered in the ice and snow, among them Lizzie Lee who was furious. “I saw the Smithsonian Institute burn down today with real sorrow, it was lost by the most miserable imbecility in the Fire Dept.” Apparently the fire alarm box froze, delaying the arrival of the firefighters and in the interim, according to the Washington Star, “Much damage was done to articles removed in consequence of the crazy manner in which they were thrown from the windows by excited individuals.” And a few days later there was a murder at the Treasury building.

“Miss Mary Harris, of Chicago, killed Mr. Burroughs, a clerk in the Treasury Department, by shooting him through the heart. The tragedy has created a good deal of sensation in the United States,” the Richmond Daily Dispatch was just one of many papers screaming the story. After she was arrested Miss Harris told a reporter that Burroughs had promised to marry her “and she killed him for not keeping his promise….She had loved him, she said, since she was a child, and though he had at one time urged her to marry him, which was opposed by her parents, he had since married another.” Apparently Miss Harris had originally intended simply to sue the spurner but “‘A few days before starting from Chicago (two weeks ago), I was walking along the street and saw some pistols in a shop window. Having learned that many of the ladies in Chicago carried pistols, especially when traveling, I determined to buy one…the day that I left Chicago I examined the printed directions upon the wrapper accompanying the pistol and cartridges, and by following them, succeeded in loading it.’” That success was unfortunate for Mr. Burroughs, though Miss Harris claimed she still had no intention of using the gun, which she carried—loaded—with her to the Treasury Building. She hid herself under a headscarf and veil, asked where to find her target’s office, worked up the courage to push open the door “and saw him at his desk. The moment I looked at him, sitting there so comfortably, the thought of all I had suffered, and of his being the cause, enraged me, and my hand involuntarily pulled back the trigger of the pistol in my pocket.” Unseen by Mr. Burroughs, she closed the door and waited. “Then I placed myself where I know he would have to come near me in going to the staircase. When he appeared, I felt suddenly lifted up, my arm was extended as stiff as iron, and I saw him fall. I knew nothing more until I was called back as I was leaving the building.’” Miss Harris insisted “there had been nothing improper between her and Mr. Burroughs.” And further reporting by the newspaper determined that Burroughs was an upstanding citizen: “He attended the Baptist church in this city with his wife every Sunday.” The grieving widow believed her husband had always tried to help the distraught Miss Harris and rejoiced when he thought she had happily married. The murderess, the newspaperman wanted his readers to know, “is of good figure, rather slight; has a well-formed head, dark hazel eyes, fine hair, which seemed, in the light in which we saw it, to be black, cut short and worn in curls; is graceful in her manners; naturally intelligent.” Several members of Congress were seen visiting the young lady “of good figure” in her jail cell and for once the city had something to talk about other than war and politics. But that could never last for long.

From the book Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington by Cokie Roberts. Copyright (c) 2015 by Cokie Roberts. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.


 2016-04-21  31m