ITHACA, N.Y. –– While the federal government has postponed the scheduled 2020 rollout of the new Harriet Tubman $20 bill, one Ithaca business owner has found a simple solution — make their own.

In 2016, it was proposed by former Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman –– a move that was ultimately put on hold in May of 2019 until 2028 by the Trump administration.

In response, local business owner Ashley Cake of the Watershed found a self-inking stamp that superimposes Tubman’s portrait over Jackson’s.

Cake calls the stamping a form of protest –– one that people who are frustrated with the current political climate can readily take part in.

“I think that people like being able to participate in telling her story,” Cake said. “I think that there’s a sense of despair, or a sense of bitter cynicism, so having something simple and almost kind of silly to do makes people feel better, if only temporarily.”

In August, the Watershed began depositing the “Tubmans” into an account at Alternatives Federal Credit Union, because of their promise to put them back into circulation. The bar’s former bank was returning the bills to the treasury as ‘mutilated,’ despite not fitting the legal definition of mutilation.

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “any badly soiled, dirty, defaced, disintegrated, limp, torn, or worn-out currency note that is clearly more than one-half of the original note, and does not require special examination to determine its value, is not considered mutilated.”

An estimated $65,000 worth of bills have been stamped so far over the life of the project.

However, circulation has had its costs. Cake has ultimately decided to stop stamping $20 bills to be part of their cash deposited to AFCU –– citing harm caused by the inability of the marked bills to be scanned by electronic tellers and vending machines.

“There’s oppressive structures that exist that mean folks who work at certain hours and times of day have to use the self-checkout line because Walmart is saving money by not having cashiers at 3 o’clock in the morning, and they can’t pay for their stuff,” Cake said. “When you’re disrupting the everyday commerce of things, even with a liberatory message, the people who are typically hurt first and worst are people with less resources.”

Cake said they will continue to distribute the Tubman bills to those who are enthusiastic about doing so, as change at the Watershed.

“I think that distributing them to customers and those who have discretionary income to have a 20 that may not be accepted everywhere may be a good vein to run the protest through,” she said.

The Watershed has made a name for themselves as being a progressive and inclusive nightlife location, introducing the Tubman bills, “barstander” training for sexual assault prevention and most recently, Sober Sundays.

“Being an establishment that strives to be actively anti-racist, we have to know what that means. That means a lot of research and reading and talking about it amongst ourselves and training and having these conversations out in the open so people can see what’s possible,” Cake said. “And then just doing the work every day.”

Featured image courtesy of Dano Wall, the artist responsible for the original stamp design.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com