Yellen signals support for Harriet Tubman on $20 bill
Harriet Tubman statue in Harlem, New York stockelements / Shutterstock.com

Putting Harriet Tubman, a Black woman who escaped slavery and became a leader of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement, on the $20 bill would be an "honor" but designing banknotes takes time, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Thursday.

Shortly after taking office in January, President Joe Biden's administration announced that it would expedite plans to put Tubman on the bill that is among the most commonly used in the country.

The project, launched by former president Barack Obama but significantly delayed under former president Donald Trump, came back to the forefront after historic demonstrations denouncing racism and police violence against people of color last year.

"I couldn't possibly think of a better way to honor Harriet Tubman's legacy and her courage in fighting for the freedom of the enslaved people and women's right to vote then seeing her on a $20 bill," Yellen said in testimony to the House Financial Services Committee.

However, she warned that "issuing notes is a very lengthy process. It involves collaboration among a number of different agencies and it's necessary to design counterfeit features."

Tubman was born into slavery in 1822 but escaped. She returned multiple times to the slave-owning southern states to help dozens of others flee bondage, either to the northern United States or Canada, both before and during the 1861-1865 Civil War.

During the war she even helped with a raid on Confederate troops, and after the war, she became a champion of women's rights before her death in 1913.

Her life, and in particular her work helping enslaved people escape as a conductor on the "Underground Railroad," were featured in a 2019 Hollywood biopic.

Tubman's image was set to replace the portrait of Andrew Jackson, the US president behind the "Trail of Tears" that drove dispossessed Native American tribes from the southeast of the expanding country, and who was much admired by Trump.

His Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin announced in 2019 that the revamp of the $20 bill was being put off until 2028, citing "security issues" around counterfeiting.

Yellen appeared alongside Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell days after two regional Fed bank presidents suddenly retired after facing questions over their stock trading activity.

The central bank has faced criticism over the lack of diversity among its top officials, and in response to a question from a lawmaker, Powell promised to consider appointing people of color to replace them.

"I can absolutely guarantee you that we will work hard in both of these processes to find and give a fair shot to diverse candidates for these two jobs; it will be a big focus of both of these processes," Powell said.