Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States
Sun, Nov. 17, 2002
'The Color of Money'
In 1996, John W. Jones was working at a graphics company in North
Charleston, when a customer brought in a piece of paper he wanted enlarged.
It was a $10 bill issued by the Farmers & Exchange Bank of
Charleston in 1853.
As Jones, a graphic artist by profession and painter by avocation,
worked on it, something caught his eye. It wasn't the scene at the top of the
bill of Charleston Harbor filled with tall sailing ships.
Jones was ensnared by a tiny picture, only two inches tall, of four
slaves picking cotton.
"I was sort of shocked - and interested," said Jones, 52.
"I didn't know there were African-Americans on any money, let alone
That night, he got on the Internet and started looking for images
of money from the pre-war South. Black faces kept showing up.
Jones went home and started a painting of that slave family.
"I've tried to give the people on the money a voice they
didn't have," said Jones, a soft-spoken, scholarly looking man of few
words. "I tried to stay true to the images on the money, but I wanted to
make them real."
He kept at it for about three years, completing 80 paintings based
on slaves pictures from the money.
These form the exhibition "The Color of Money: Images of
Slavery in Confederate and Southern State Currency." It will open Friday at
That $10 bill showed up at an interesting time. A battle was going
on over the Confederate flag flying above the S.C. State House. Once again some
people argued that slavery wasn't a defining issue of the South and that the
Civil War wasn't fought over slavery either.
For Jones, pictures of slaves on money was direct evidence that
slavery was a vital Southern institution and symbol of what made the South
‘.‘.‘. well, the South.
"These (images) are kind of a visual smoking gun," said
Jones, who lives surrounded by family near Parklane Road. "Putting these
images on money was the way to legitimize it.
"It's right there on the money. I didn't put it there."
"The Color of Money" was first shown at the Avery
Research Center at the College of Charleston in 2001, where it drew national
attention, including a story in The New York Times.
Marvin Dulaney, Avery Center director, met Jones around 1995 and
even commissioned him to do a painting of the Charleston slave market. Jones
showed him some of the 20 money illustration paintings he'd done.
"I was fascinated," said Dulaney. "This was a story
we could tell that had never been told before."
Paint more, Dulaney told him, and we'll do a show. So Jones
hunkered down in his tiny studio in a small blue building behind his house. He
often started working at midnight, spending many a long night between 1997 and
the end of 2000 in the narrow space with a drafting table, some filing cabinets,
issues of the National Geographic and a small twin bed for naps.
When the paintings were shown at the Avery Center last year,
"it was one of the biggest things we'd ever done," Dulaney said.
"People bought every one of them and gave us donations to buy a couple for
Since the first show, "The Color of Money" also has been
at the African-American Museum and Library in Oakland, Calif. and the Black
Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, and is scheduled to be shown in Louisiana and New
Pictures of slaves began appearing regularly on Southern bank
currency during the 1850s, said Richard Doty, curator of American History at the
Smithsonian Institute and an expert on currency. (Paper money was created by
banks starting around 1780. The U.S. government began issuing paper money,
unifying the form, in 1861.)
The slave imagery varies, but the basic theme is black people
• A white man on horseback, whip in his
hand, watches slaves picking cotton on a bill from Fairfield, S.C.
• A Virginia note depicts a white man and
woman stand by a tree watching slaves harvest wheat.
• Others are almost like portraits, such as
one from the Central Bank of Alabama of a young man with a basket of cotton, and
another from the Timber Cutter's Bank in Georgia, on which a woman holds a child
on her shoulder and lifts her tobacco-laden apron.
Jones depicts the slaves in bright clothing. He lavishes attention
on the sky, sometimes filling it with scudding gray clouds, other times making
it the violet of evening or yellow-hot midday.
In one, a man with the bushel of corn wears a purple shirt with
wide striped purple-and-whitecollar. He smiles at the viewer.
He's taken tiny images, where the slaves' faces can barely be seen,
and brought them and the land around them to life.
LETTING THEM LOOK
The paintings carry prosaic titles: "Slave Leading
Cattle," "Slave Taking a Rest," "The Grinder and the
Slave," "Slave Riding Horse" and "Montgomery Slaves."
Jones didn't see any reason to have the titles carry some big
message, and he didn't think it was necessary to beat anyone over the head.
"I didn't want to make a statement in that way," he said.
"Let the artwork stand on its own. It all tells a story. All you need to do
it look at it."
Chuma Nwokike, owner of the Chuma Gallery in Charleston, says this
approach makes the art more powerful because it doesn't provide easy answers.
"Sometimes people wonder, 'Why would he paint happy
slaves?'‘" Nwokike said. "But that's the way they were presented on
the money. Changing it would be revising history.
"He just put it out there and lets people react the way they
want to. He hasn't gone to one extreme or the other with it."
In a self-published book by Jones with the same name as the
exhibition, Richard Doty of the Smithsonian calls the pictures of happy and
healthy slaves on money propaganda for slavery.
"One (slave) smiled at the onlooker on a 50-dollar bill
‘.‘.‘. Surely, he was enjoying his work, and that work must be beneficial
to America, and to him," writes Doty. "He dreamed and dozed his life
away; it was just as well that he was in bondage ‘.‘.‘."
The bill and painting most important to Jones is the one that he
has changed the most, "Slave Profits."
The $5 bill from the Georgia Savings Bank in Macon depicts Moneta,
the Roman goddess of money. She holds a branch of cotton, with four large bolls.
Gold coins spill from sacks around her. Behind her left shoulder, a train
rumbles by. To the right, 15 slaves pick cotton.
On the currency, Moneta is white.
Jones has painted her as a woman of mixed race, with medium brown
skin and thick blond hair.
To Jones, it's all connected: slavery, cotton, commerce, the sexual
exploitation of black women.
"I think that sums it up - it was all about money," Jones
ART AND HISTORY
Born in 1950, Jones grew up in Blythewood when it was country.
"I watched Interstate 20 being built," said Jones, who is
usually dressed in a soft brown hat, stylish loafers and crisp shirt. His
clothes tend to be muted, much like his manner.
His father was superintendent of gardens at a state mental hospital
not far away. His brother Eddie, five years his senior, also drew, and both of
them frequently borrowed art books from the school library.
"I've done art since I was 6," Jones said. "I drew
in the dirt. My father wouldn't let us draw on paper. That was for school."
Jones always has been interested in history as well as art.
Hanging on the wall in his brother's house is a cap-and-ball pistol
that's been in the family since 1851, although it originally belonged to the
white side of the family.
The Jones family always told storiesabout their origins. But like
many other African-Americans, Jones became more interested when the miniseries
"Roots" was broadcast in 1977.
Prompted by the movie "Glory," he began doing paintings
based on the 54th Massachusetts, an nearly all-black Union regiment wiped out on
South Carolina's Morris Island during the Civil War. He has painted pictures of
the Buffalo Soldiers, the black soldiers who fought Native Americans in the late
Jones couldn't afford college.
"I was invited by the president to participate in the war in
Vietnam," he said with a grim smile.
After that tour, he re-enlisted twice, spending eight years as an
illustrator, doing everything from drawing maps to painting murals, in South
Korea and various U.S. bases.
"I was young and wild and chasing women," he said.
After leaving the Army, he worked for various graphics firms, but
mostly as a freelance illustrator and graphics person. He got married and moved
to Summerville in 1996, then got divorced and came back to Columbia in '98 to
care for his mother. She died last year.
He lives in his mother's old house next door to his brother and
close to other relatives on land his great-uncle bought at least 50 years ago.
Jones painted several versions of Caravaggio's 16th century
painting of Christ being removed from the cross. He gave the first one to a
church but noticed they'd taken it down after a few weeks.
"They told me, 'We're a black church, and the people in the
painting are white,' he said and shook his head.
He did another copy of the Caravaggio with dark-skinned people but
didn't give it to the church. He sold it to a collector.
END OF SERIES
The money series is winding down. Jones thinks he's seen most of
the money with slave images on it, although Louisiana State University, which is
interested in showing his paintings, has a currency collection containing a few
bills new to him. The works have sold very well for $1,500 to $8,000 each.
Some collectors have several. One has 20. About a third of the
people who bought the originals are white, Nwokike said. People who have bought
the paintings live all over the country.
"I have two or three left," Jones said. "Most of
these paintings are long gone.
"I would have liked to keep all of them, but I'm doing this
for a living."
Although Jones is serious about the series and what it shows, he's
rather bemused by how it all came about.
"I would never have thought Confederate money would be so
important to me," he said.
Jones never again saw the man who brought in that $10 issued by the
Farmers and Exchange Bank of Charleston and brought the money to his attention.
Even with all the attention Jones' work has received, the person never has
"He doesn't know what he started," Jones said.
IF YOU GO
'The Color of Money'
When: Benedict College Business Development Center, 3601 Read St.
(the intersection of Two Notch Road and Read St.)
Where: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Dec. 18.
Contact: (803) 758-4460