S.C. — Without a magnifying glass, it is difficult to see the faces on
the slaves as they harvest cotton and hoist overflowing baskets to their
shoulders. Minutely engraved on the tattered currency of the old South,
the images are faded and smudged, and their message has languished in the
vaults of collectors.
About four years ago, a collector took one of
the old Confederate bank notes into a North Charleston blueprint shop and
asked an employee, John W. Jones, to have it enlarged. Mr. Jones, an
artist and commercial illustrator who frequently paints African-American
themes, studied the engraving on the note and was struck by the
Confederacy's decision to use as its monetary symbol an accomplished image
of a black field hand straining at the cotton harvest.
Prowling through hobby shops and Internet
sites, he realized that scenes of slave labor were in fact a prevailing
image on Southern currency during the mid-19th century. Where other states
and nations used historical scenes or pictures of national leaders and
resources on their money, the Confederate states often chose to portray
themselves as the land of slaves, usually contented and sometimes smiling.
But these historical documents had to be
enlarged to be appreciated. Because very few visual depictions of slavery
were made at the time, Mr. Jones got out his acrylics and canvas and began
painting these vignettes as full-size works, adding nothing but color. An
exhibition of about 30 of his paintings opened in February at the College
of Charleston in its Avery Research Center for African-American History
and Culture, and it has been drawing a steady audience of both blacks and
"We built the economy of the South, and
here you have the banks saying so," said Mr. Jones, who now works in
a studio in Columbia. "But no one had seen these images. No one
realized what was on the bills."
Numismatists have long known about the bills'
imagery, but historians have recently begun taking a closer look at it as
a statement of the South's economic priorities during the war. An Internet
exhibition created last year by the United States Civil War Center at
Louisiana State University has more than 75 engravings of slavery from
Confederate paper money. (The exhibition can be seen at www.cwc.lsu.edu /BeyondFaceValue.)
At the time, money was printed both by the
Confederate States of America and by the banks of the individual Southern
states. Several scholars who contributed to the online project noted that
Southern banks enshrined slavery in their monetary system to remind those
who came in contact with their bills that the institution was the region's
"Slaves were the capital of the
South," said Henry N. McCarl, an economics professor at the
University of Alabama at Birmingham and a numismatist who contributed an
essay and part of his collection to the online exhibition. "Cultures
put on their money objects that are important to them and their economy,
and the South had an interest in showing to the world that the slaves were
well treated and happy."
There are, of course, no scenes of slaves being
mistreated on the bills, and in a few close-ups they are smiling as they
move in ragged clothes and bare feet through the cotton fields. In one
scene painted by Mr. Jones from a South Carolina $5 bill, a white overseer
supervises a group of slaves from his horse with his whip in his hand; in
another, a white man and woman gaze down at a quartet of bent-over slaves
working with scythes in a wheat field.
The pictures, like the Confederacy itself, are
almost entirely agrarian and usually romanticized, etched by engravers who
are not now identifiable. Slaves are shown loading sugar cane onto wagons
and leading cattle and very frequently working with cotton: planting it,
picking it, hauling it, baling it. The cotton images are repeated so often
they become iconographic, and some of the bills show classical goddesses
of liberty or prosperity — even George Washington — gazing at the
cotton scenes with admiration and blessing. In one allegorical picture
painted by Mr. Jones from a Georgia Savings Bank bill, a white figure that
is apparently that of Moneta, the Roman goddess of money, is in the
foreground holding a cotton plant as bags of gold spill open at her feet.
In the background, an overseer on a horse supervises a field of slaves as
a train arrives to pick up their harvest.
"I was particularly intrigued by that
one," said Mr. Jones, most of whose paintings in the series have been
snapped up by collectors. "The slaves are doing the work, and she's
got the money."
John M. Coski, historian and library director
at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., said that there were
more vignettes from classical mythology than of slaves on Southern
currency, and that the banks were not so much making a grand statement
about slavery as they were simply depicting their world. But several
African-American scholars disagree about the statement being made by the
"We did this exhibit because of what John
showed us about the South," said W. Marvin Dulaney, director of the
Avery Research Center and a history professor at the College of
Charleston. "We hear a lot these days about how the Confederacy was
really about states' rights and not slavery. But the currency itself tells
the truth. It shows how they saw us, and how they wanted to keep seeing