Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
Original Acrylic on Canvas Paintings by

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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.

The artistís 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 cotton.

"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 labor.

"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 cotton."

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 come across."

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.

"Come on," 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 racial profiling.

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 overwhelming."

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 exhibit. Go

Beyond Face Value: Depictions of Slavery in U.S. Currency
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