Color of Money
July 26, 2002 -- They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And to John
W. Jones, that statement is much more than just a clichť.
paintings of slave images found on Confederate currency tell the story of
an Old South culture, a romanticized Confederacy and a southern economy
built on the backs of free black labor.
It all started about
six years ago when a customer in the blueprint shop where Jones worked
requested an enlargement of one of his Confederate bills.
Once enlarged, Jones
could see a scene from the small worn bill was a picture of slaves picking
"I had seen
Confederate money before, but had never really paid that much attention to
what was on it," said Jones. "It wasnít until I blew it up
that I noticed there were slaves on the money."
Shocked and intrigued
by the image staring back at him, Jones set out on a quest to find more of
the old southern money, reproducing each vignette in the form of full-size
paintings for the world to see.
"I did some
research and I discovered that like me, most people never knew there were
African Americans on any money, let alone Confederate money," Jones
said. "This is a part of our history that no one knows anything
about. I wanted to let the public know about it."
In all, Jones has
completed more than 70 acrylic on canvas paintings, adding only color to
the scenes gleaned from the mid-19th century currency.
Like the Confederate
bills, many of the paintings show the smiling faces of slaves in cotton
fields. They appear docile and contented in tattered garments and bare
feet -- planting, picking, lifting and hauling the fruits of their free
"It was really
more propaganda than anything else," said Jones. "[The south]
wanted to promote the idea that slavery was a wonderful institution.
Thatís why nothing negative is depicted on the bills. All the slaves are
peaceful. They look like theyíre well-fed and just happy to be picking
In one scene, which
Jones says he finds particularly telling, Moneta, the Roman goddess of
money, is shown cradling a cotton plant. As bags of gold overflow around
her feet, an overseer manages a field of slaves in the distance.
"That image speaks
clearly about the economic importance of slavery to the South," said
Jones. "It is probably the most important of all the images Iíve
To Jones, the scenes of
slavery on the currency also speak volumes to the ever-growing argument
that the Civil War was about statesí rights and not slavery.
Jones chided. "It was about statesí rights alright -- statesí
rights to own slaves. I mean, itís pretty clear. Itís right there on
the money. Slavery was the backbone of the southern economy and they
wanted it to continue."
Jonesí creations are
now chronicled in a traveling exhibition titled "Confederate
Currency: The Color of Money." In the exhibit, each painting is
juxtaposed with the bill bearing its original image.
Color of Money has
visited several museums and various universities, sparking interest and
dialogue among attendees about issues ranging from slavery reparations to
The exhibit broke
attendance records last year at the Avery Research Center for African
American History in Charleston, S.C., which helped organize Jonesí
project. Beginning July 24 and ending November 6, Americaís Black
Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee will feature the Color of Money exhibit.
"I never in my
wildest dreams thought Confederate money would become so important to
me," Jones joked. "Response to this has been absolutely
In addition to the
current showing at Americaís Black Holocaust Museum, future exhibitions
of Color of Money are scheduled at Benedict College, the Rome (Georgia)
Art Museum, and Capital University.
See the art
View the paintings and Confederate bills featured in the Color of Money
Beyond Face Value: Depictions of Slavery in
This educational project of the U.S. Civil War Center features a
collection of notes issued and circulated in the South during the
Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction Eras. Go