The Color of
Artist Re-Creates Scenes of Slavery Found On
One day, as artist John W. Jones worked at a print
ship in South Carolina, he discovered some old Confederate currency that
featured a picture of slaves picking cotton. Jones knew that the economy of the
Old South depended on slaves who cultivated the land, but the artist says he had
no idea the confederate states circulated money that displayed its most valuable
commodities - salves and cotton.
He began to investigate, searching the
Internet, where he found Web sites on the subject. Now, four years after at the
Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of
Charleston. The exhibit, titled "Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and
Southern States: Confederate Currency - The Color of Money" features scenes
from the old currency.
The 29 oil paintings on display will be there until
October, when they will be packed up and shipped as a traveling art show to
galleries across the country. When complete, the series will total 55 paintings.
"I didn't know they had slaves on the
currency, that's what intrigued me about it," Jones says. "It's almost
like one of the best kept secrets. The stuff on the bills were so small, unless
you were looking for it you'd miss it, " Jones says. "I wanted to
illuminate what I saw."
This exhibit goes beyond art into history, Jones
says. "It speaks a great deal about how important African Americans were to
the economic survival of this country. Their argument that the Civil War wasn't
about slavery was nothing but lies.
"The money is additional proof of how
significant slave labor was to this country," he says. "It's history
and education. Young people, especially Black kids, should certainly see this
exhibit to give them an idea of what their ancestors went through."
For Professor Marvin Dulaney, the exhibit's
historical significance speaks for itself. "This exhibit is about the truth
and how important Africans were to the economy," he says. "This is not
a revisionist historian, the Confederate states themselves put those pictures on
the currency," says Dulaney, chairman of the College of Charleston's
"It's mind-boggling, the number of cotton
fields pictured," he says. "When I teach American history classes, I
talk about the importance of cotton to the economy. This shows how important.
"They admitted it. We're tied to slavery.
It's the foundation of our society." He says. This exhibit is appropriate
for an institution like the Avery Research Center, which has a mission to
collect, preserve and document the history and culture of African Americans in
Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country.
"For an African American institution to do
an exhibit such as this means we're breaking tradition," Dulaney says. We
want to tell the truth." It would have been difficult to get this exhibit
in a traditional gallery, Dulaney says. But, "we told John, 'We can do it.
You complete it and get it up.'
"I'm glad we had this opportunity to
display this exhibit," he says. "John has done a magnificent job
interpreting those pictures."
More than 80 types of bills circulated
throughout the Confederate states, including a rare $500 bill. Today, many of
these bills are in private and public collections. They sell for an average $10
to $50 each, but some currency sells for as much as $500. Most of the bills are
More than half the paintings in the series have
been sold, 11 of them to Dr. Harold Rhodes of Charleston. "I've seen
Confederate money, but never paid attention. These paintings evoked so much
emotion." Rhodes says. "My only regret is that I didn't have the money
to buy the entire collection."
Rhodes also says that it is a shame that issues
like the flap over the Confederate flag so much attention, while works like
Jones' go relatively unnoticed.
"We have played such a huge role in the
development of the country," Rhode says. "I have friends who talk
about how the Internet revolutionized, and how automobile changed it all. I
don't think any had the same impact as slave labor, which made American what it