Tubman $20

Fake $20 bills with Harriet Tubman's face are passed around during a town hall meeting held Aug. 31, 2015, by the U.S. Treasury Department at the Wesleyan Chapel at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls.

The Citizen file

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin won't commit to putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. 

Mnuchin was asked about putting Tubman's likeness on paper currency during a CNBC interview. His predecessor, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, announced in April 2016 that Tubman would be the face of a redesigned $20 bill

"Ultimately, we will be looking at this issue," Mnuchin said. "It's not something that I'm focused on at the moment. But the No. 1 issue why we change the currency is to stop counterfeiting. So the issues of why we change it will be primarily related to what we need to do for security purposes."

He added, "This is something we'll consider. Right now, we got a lot more important issues to focus on." 

The lack of a commitment from Mnuchin surprised some Auburn officials and Tubman boosters, including Pauline Copes Johnson, the abolitionist's great-great-grandniece. 

When told of the Treasury secretary's comments, Johnson said it was "awfully sudden." 

"I don't like the sound of it because I think Harriet deserves to be on the $20 bill," she said. "She has done so much for this country and lord I'm hoping that doesn't happen." 

Laurel Ullyette, president of the Harriet Tubman Boosters Club, was surprised by the timing of Mnuchin's comments. But the Trump administration's apparent position wasn't unexpected. 

"We kind of figured there was a very high likelihood that at some point this would become an issue for them," she said. 

Ullyette said not putting Tubman on the $20 bill would show "complete ignorance of her role" in the 19th century. She freed slaves, served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War and played a part in the women's rights movement. 

Tubman was born in Maryland, but spent her later years living in Auburn. Her brick residence and the Home for the Aged, which she founded on her property, are part of the newly established Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. 

Supporters of Tubman believe the $20 bill would help tell her life story and promote sites, such as the national parks in Auburn and on Maryland's Eastern Shore. 

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Rep. John Katko pledged to pursue legislation that would reverse any change to the plan if Treasury follows through and declines to put Tubman on the $20 bill. 

When informed of Mnuchin's remarks, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she was "very concerned."

"If they do try to unwind it, we will try and fix it through congressional action," she said. 

Katko, R-Camillus, said he would contact Mnuchin immediately to discuss the matter. He introduced legislation in the last Congress that would put Tubman's likeness on U.S. paper currency. The bill wasn't necessary once Treasury decided to add Tubman's portrait to the $20 note. 

While he could introduce legislation again, his initial plan is to take his message directly to Mnuchin. 

"I'm a firm believer that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so I'll drive him crazy until he relents," he said. 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.