Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States
Confederate Currency: The Color of
Money, is a journey that started six years ago while working as a graphic
artist at a blueprint company in Charleston. After enlarging a Confederate bank
note for a customer, I found myself looking at a picture of slaves picking
cotton. Intrigued and excited, I started researching and documenting the use of
slaves on Confederate and Southern states money. I was astonished by the
widespread use of slaves on these currencies, and even more shocked by the
absence of this information in any history books. The engravings on the bills
are so small, that unless you were looking for them, you would miss them.
I decided to bring these engravings to light, as an addition to my series of paintings of the African American experience. I present the engravings as originally portrayed on the currencies without revision. I have used my colorful acrylics on canvas to bring the paintings back to life, and to extract from the dehumanizing engravings, the essential humanity of their subject matter.
I am partial to the narrative content of art. I like to use my art to
tell a story. In this collection, the paintings innocuously draw you in and free
you up to confront the difficult subject of slavery without the fear of
censorship. The juxtaposition of the framed Confederate Currencies with the
acrylic paintings inspired by the slave images on the currencies makes a very
powerful statement on the contribution of enslaved Africans to the American
economy. In these paintings, history informs art, which in turn artfully reveals
It has sometimes been said that the history of a country is reflected in its money. That was certainly true in the history of early American paper currencies, and the depiction of enslaved Africans on them. Cotton and slaves were the foundations on which the economy of the South was built. They were important properties proudly displayed on its paper money. Slavery was very important to the South because it was on their money. We can use that little cliché… “It’s right on the money.’’ The engravings are like a visual smoking gun that documents how much free slave labor enriched America.
Confederate Currency: The Color of Money tells a story which, though set in 19th Century America, speaks profoundly to the national dialogue today. The exhibition creates a poignant, provocative and illuminating focal point for engaging such issues as slavery, reparations, racial profiling, racial healing, institutional racism and discrimination. Institutions scheduling the exhibition have incorporated it with symposiums, conferences and lectures and have extended it to children and youth through school and community education projects.
First Image. The first depiction of African Americans on any American money was in 1820, with blacks and whites working in a congenial atmosphere engraved on a note from Georgia. There is no apparent suggestion of subordination, no hint as to African Americans existing as the property of another.
For the next 30 years, there were no records of slaves engraved on paper money. But by the 1850’s the country was sharply divided over the slavery issue. The Southern States started putting positive images of slavery engraved on their currency as a way to rebut the movement to abolish slavery.