Revolution, Independence, And Harriet Tubman: A Question of Proper Rights

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The Following is a joint article with massive guest contributions from Christian Elden and Marsha Barrow Smith. The first portion of the article is background, the middle by Ms. Barrow Smith, and the last by James Scully




Black History Month, which began in the United States as “Negro History Week” in February 1926, is an opportunity for people to recognize the past and present contributions that African-Americans make in areas such as education, medicine, art, culture, public service, economic development, politics and human rights.

To help people further recognize those contributions, Marsha Barrow Smith, who was born & raised in Toronto, founded Follow the Northern Star, a company dedicated to producing high quality educational products that respectfully highlight those individuals within minorities in North American history. Smith’s lifelong passion for Canadian and American Black History motivated her to attend York University where she achieved a double major in Political Science and the Humanities, as well as a Masters in Canadian History with an emphasis on African Canadian History.

It was through her efforts with Northern Star that Smith found Christian Elden, an artist and owner of his own small business, Elden Creative Group. Elden was soon commissioned to do a series of Black History portraits, to be featured on a new line of Northern Star products. It was through this working relationship that a portrait of Harriet Tubman, one of the the foremost figures in Black History, (seen above) was created.

Perhaps the greatest recent example of this was Tubman’s “victory” in an online poll with the aim of getting the face of a woman on the $20 bill. Women On 20s, a grassroots organization based out of New York, used an online election format consisting of two rounds of voting to let the public choose a nominee from an original slate of 15 inspiring American women in history. Over a period of 10 weeks, more than 600,000 people cast votes and Harriet Tubman emerged as the winner. On May 12, 2015, Women On 20s presented a petition to President Obama informing him of the results of the election and encouraging him to instruct Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew to use his authority to make this change in time to have a new bill in circulation before the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.

The campaign received widespread mainstream media attention, as every major news outlet ran at least one story, sometimes more, engaging the nation — and the world — with videos, words, pictures, polls, debates, opinions and cartoons. The conversation raced around the globe via talk radio, blogs, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and filtered down to classrooms and dinner tables in towns across America.

It was on one of those news websites, however, that Elden noticed something. The image of Harriet Tubman being plastered all over the news and social media looked suspiciously close to the portrait he’d done for Follow the Northern Star several years earlier. After looking into it further, Elden confirmed what he believed to be true — that Women On 20s had used the image in their campaign without consent. He emailed Smith that same day, and they began to talk about their options going forward.

The effort exhibited and time spent by Women On 20s to place a woman on the $20 bill share some of the characteristics of Tubman’s journey. They deserve their due respect, and Smith & Elden agree with their mission. However, a conference call with Women On 20s and many emails later, the two sides have yet to reach an agreement deemed suitable for both parties. Women On 20s has since removed most of the instances of the portrait from their website, but its use during the height of the campaign was cataloged on Elden’s blog here

The proper solution, in the opinions of Smith & Elden, would first include the acknowledgement of fault, and secondly, reasonable restitution paid to Follow the Northern Star and Elden Creative Group, the affected parties. The acts of compensation and proper endorsement would also enable W20 to continue utilizing the image to support their noble initiative.


This portion is from the essay “Revolution, Independence, And Harriet Tubman,” by Marsha Barrow Smith



The life, times and multiple achievements of Harriet Tubman (nee Araminta Ross) are truly inspiring. Being born as a slave in Maryland in the early 1820’s Tubman experienced the constant fear and drudgery of slave life. Many online sources summarize Harriet Tubman’s life as abolitionist, nurse, spy, woman’s suffragist, etc. But to read about her life, to comprehend her struggle, to sympathize with the state of her existence and that of the African American people during that time, is to realize that she was so much greater than her accomplishments.  Her presence on this earth can only resonate with those who can fathom her strength and that of her being.

Her generosity, her sacrifice, her purpose was not only extended to her own family or the freeing of slaves, but towards the Union Army, and ultimately the woman’s suffragist movement (working along side Susan B Anothny). Her successful accomplishments were by no means easy, they were not widely supported, and most importantly, they were never about herself. She perpetually carried on her personal mission, sacrificially by delivering close to a 1,000 people out of bondage within America, most of them being strangers but in essence all were family. That is why she is commonly referred to as the Moses of her people.

It was Harriet’s strong Christian faith that served her and her ‘passengers’ well. She believed that she would not be harmed (based on assurances she believed that she received from God). She endured, slavery, disrespect, brutality, separation, illness (epilepsy), illiteracy, poverty, etc, but her fortitude persisted. Her continual sense of hope, strength, and grace still resonates with many, even today.


Resistance as Independence

Tubman repeatedly demonstrated her independence through multiple forms of resistance (such as, but not limited to): defiance of her many masters, disobedience of the law, running away, singing coded spirituals (songs) that led the way to their Northern ‘promised land’ etc. The sense and feeling of freedom that each one of these acts culminated to produce, provided her with the strength, faith and grace to continue with her mission of freedom for her people. Once she experienced her initial taste of freedom, the experience was too powerful to be self contained. She tasted the flavor of  freedom, though not always sweet, and wanted to share the meal with all who yearned for the same.

She is even quoted as saying: “There was one of two things I had a right to- liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other.” Both exemplify independence to its highest degree.


WallBreaker- Find your passion.

Most find their passion in serving others, a small percentage look to serve themselves. The restaurateur endeavors to serve great food, the teacher hopes to inspire by serving their students, a mayor looks to serve their community. The social aspects of human nature lead us to function best together. One’s truest nature is exemplified fully in relation to one another.

Harriet Tubman found her passion. Essentially her passion can be summed up as a quest for independence for issues that greatly affected her. That quest to make a difference in the world, right where you are, no matter the insurmountable circumstances, is more than righteous. The effort, energy and time exhibited by W20 to place a woman on the US $20 bill, holds some of the characteristics of Tubman’s journey. They deserve their due respect, However.



Proper Solution

The proper solution in my opinion is with the acknowledgement of unintentional fault, reasonable restitution would be received by us, the affected parties. This act of financial compensation and proper endorsement, would enable W20 to utilize the image continuously to support their noble initiative. The act of endorsing the ECG and FollowNorthernStar is paramount. All the companies involved rely on social media, networking to promote and establish business for themselves. When W20 denied this opportunity, it essentially caused loss of business, a loss of awareness for ECG and FollowNorthernStar.



Editor’s note by James Scully


My emotions are somewhat torn. I don’t think Women on 20s’ hearts were in the wrong places in wanting to have Harriot Tubman appear on the $20, but they, by not paying for the right to use Mr. Elden’s image, are denigrating Ms. Tubman’s ultimate message in doing so. Ms. Tubman believed in freedom or death. She was willing to pay for one with the other. On the surface our lives seem much less complicated, but to take away one’s rights in any manner unjustly, is to reduce us to the kind of mental slavery that Ms. Tubman was willing to die to break free from. Therefore, Women on 20s HAS to pay for the right to use the image of Ms. Tubman, because everything they stand for hinges on it.