By Rick Dapp, Photography by Cassie Miller
With the recent announcement by the U.S. Treasury Department that Harriet Tubman would grace the $20 bill and reposition Andrew Jackson to the obverse side of it, interest in the abolitionist leader who died in 1913 has increased commensurately. The Treasury Department had contemplated the change in currency “look” for years but was moved, in part, by a viral Internet campaign, to put a woman’s portrait on the $20 bill in 2020 to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage.
Tubman, born into slavery in Maryland in approximately 1820 (the exact year of her birth is unknown) will be the first African-American and the first African-American woman, but not the first woman, to appear on U.S. currency. The first woman to grace American folding money was Martha Washington, who appeared on the $1 silver certificate, first printed in 1886. The only other women to adorn American legal tender are Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea, who appeared on the somewhat less-than-popular $1 coin.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who made the announcement regarding Harriet Tubman’s placement on the $20, also described other changes planned for the $5 and $10 bills. The plan for the new $5 bill, which will still feature Abraham Lincoln on the front, will honor the Civil Rights Movement with depictions of Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson. The $10 bill will retain Alexander Hamilton on the front side and will honor women’s suffrage leaders, like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth, on the back.
The selection of Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson, who – despite being a U.S. president – was a slave owner, is likely to foster some heated debate. Tubman, whose birth name was Araminta Ross, freed herself in 1851 using the Underground Railroad and then returned repeatedly to escort others to freedom, delivering approximately 300 people to freedom in Canada over a 15-year period. During the Civil War, she served as a soldier, spy and nurse. After the war, she became a renowned orator and helped to organize the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
So, what does this all have to do with Harrisburg, Pa.? The answer to that is nothing. And, perhaps, a lot. Harrisburg was fortunate to have another famous abolitionist counted among her citizenry at the same time.
William Howard Day, born October 16, 1825 in New York City, was not born into slavery. His mother, Eliza, was a founding member of the first African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and an abolitionist. His father, John, was a sail maker and veteran of the War of 1812 who died when William was 4.
Given that Eliza Day was the sole parent of a child in 1830 and African-American could have resulted in an entirely different course in life for William had he not made an impression upon an ink manufacturer from Massachusetts. A white family, the Willistons of Northampton, Mass., active in both the abolitionist and temperance movements, asked Eliza Day to give them custody of William and raise him there. He eventually went to Oberlin College where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Later, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree from Livingstone College. His passion for education led him to become a Latin professor and to spend four years as a superintendent of Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Maryland and Delaware.
Unlike Harriet Tubman, whose emergence and subsequent fame followed a path begun humbly and fought a limited education with an indomitable spirit, Day’s challenge was contested from within the existing system and accomplished with an education rarely seen at that time in African-American society.
Todd Mealy, Lancaster writer and author of Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day (a two-volume treatise on Day’s life and contributions, America Star Books, 2010) commented on Day’s influence upon both the Civil Rights Movement and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Mealy, “When King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 to deliver his I Have a Dream speech, he was marking the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The event has gone down as the first civil rights march on Washington. However, 98 years earlier, the first, generally omitted, march on Washington occurred on July 4, 1865 when more than 10,000 newly freed slaves stood on the back lawn of the White House to listen to the words of Day.”
Mealy then quotes from William Howard Day’s speech: “We meet,” Day proclaimed, “to celebrate new hopes, new prospects, new joys and in view of the nation.”
In the years prior to his milestone speech on the White House lawn, Day had learned the printing trade and had established a publication for African-Americans called Aliened American. He was also a teacher in a variety of subjects, including Latin, Greek, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, writing, shorthand and vocal music.
After a sojourn in England in the late 1850s, he returned to the United States and served as editor for Zion’s Standard and Weekly Review. He was then recruited as Maryland and Delaware’s inspector-general of schools, supervising 140 schools, 150 teachers and 7,000 children. His appearance in Pennsylvania came when he was editor of Our National Progress and appointed clerk in the Auditor General’s office in 1872. That prompted the following notification in the New Bloomfield, Perry County, Bloomfield Times on January 21, 1873: “Prof. Howard W. Day, editor of Our National Progress, the organ of the colored Republicans of this State, has been appointed to a clerkship in the Auditor General’s office. The white man who was removed to make a vacancy for his ‘colored brother’ is not pleased with the arrangement.”
By 1878, Day had been elected school director in Harrisburg, the first African-American school board member and president. He was re-elected in 1881 but did not seek re-election in 1884. Public appeal for his return in 1887 resulted in his being easily elected to serve another three-year term as Harrisburg School Board president.
In 1879, Day, with J.C. Price, William H. Goler and Solomon Porter Hood, established Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., which remains to this day a predominantly African-American institution.
Because of his work as an educator, Day was honored by the City of Harrisburg with a school building named after him: the William Howard Day School, that was located on the south side of North Street, just east of Fifth Street. Subsequent to his death in 1900, nearly 40 years would pass before the city so honored him in two more ways: the William Howard Day homes, a public-housing community located at Reilly Road and Herr Street; and the William Howard Day Cemetery, located at 801 Lincoln Street in Steelton.
Perhaps William Howard Day’s belief in affecting change from within the system can be summarized by a statement he made in a speech at a convention in Ohio in 1851: “I consider the Constitution the foundation of American liberties, and wrapping myself in the flag of the nation, I would plant myself upon that Constitution, and using the weapons they have given me, I would appeal to the American people for the rights thus guaranteed.”
At the very least, could we get this man’s picture on the front of the $50?
This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine
I appreciated this article very much!
One note, you ask “what does this all have to do with Harrisburg, Pa.? The answer to that is nothing. And, perhaps, a lot.” Well, considering the level of impact Day had on Harrisburgers, in addition to his contributions to the abolition movement as well as post-Civil War civil rights, it would avail all of us to
see Tubman’s story as one having great connection with Harrisburg. Day and Tubman consorted together on the Underground Railroad in St. Catharines, Ontario in 1858. Day was the chairman of the UGRR, based in nearby Chatham, while Tubman lived in St. Catharines. When John Brown visited Tubman in her home on the eve of his Harper’s Ferry raid, Tubman was the one who introduced Brown to Day. Day went on to print John Brown’s provisional constitution. Day’s role as Underground Railroad director in places like Oberlin, Cleveland and Chatham put him in the company of many powerful abolitionists. This isn’t even half his story. But I digress.
I second your motion to make Wm. Howard Day the face of $50!