Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
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Artist captures images of slavery printed on Confederate currency

Sunday, November 3, 2002

Of The Post and Courier Staff

     When artist John W. Jones was growing up in Blythewood, a rural community near Columbia, he would get a sharp stick and draw all kinds of pictures in the dirt yard around his house.
     "We had paper and pencils in the house, but my father thought they should be saved for our schoolwork and not wasted for me just to draw on," says Jones with a chuckle.
     Today, the little boy who once drew in the dirt has become known for bringing to the nation's attention the fact that the Confederacy promoted the money-making virtues of slavery by engraving on its currency images of slaves at work. In fact, many years after the Civil War, the images continued to appear on some bills issued in the South.
     The project, which has mushroomed into an exhibit and a hardback book, had its genesis in 1996 when Jones, who had moved from Columbia to Summerville, was working at the American Blue Print Company in North Charleston.
     "A customer came in and asked me to scan and enlarge a Confederate bill," says Jones. "When I did this, I noticed various scenes of slaves were on the currency. I was surprised because I hadn't seen anything about that in history books."
     Jones, who is descended from a former slave, then began looking for Confederate bills at flea markets and on eBay and at shops specializing in old currencies. He eventually collected 122 bills and painted 80 of the slavery scenes.
     One particular image of a slave carrying a basket of cotton appeared on 21 different currencies. The money was printed in Columbia and parts of Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and other places. "I was astonished at the widespread use of slaves on these currencies and even more shocked by the absence of this information in any history books," says Jones.
     "For sure, the engravings on the bills are so small that unless you were looking for them, you would miss them."
     Jones says that he has used his colorful acrylics on canvas to bring the images back to life and to extract from the dehumanizing engravings the essential humanity of their subject matter.
     With the help of the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture, 73 of Jones' 80 paintings were assembled into an exhibit titled "Confederate Currency: The Color of Money."
     The exhibit had an extended showing at Avery in the fall of 2001. Then this summer, the acrylic works were exhibited in California at Oakland's African-American Museum and Library. Recently, "The Color of Money" was on display at America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, where Jones was flown in October to make a speech.
     The framed Confederate currencies juxtaposed with the acrylic paintings have been critiqued and described in articles in 216 publications, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. Jones' paintings also have been featured on CNN.
     On Thursday, the Penn Center near Beaufort will feature "The Color of Money" exhibit at the York W. Bailey Museum to help celebrate the center's "Heritage Days," which last through Sunday. A reception honoring Jones, open to the public, will be held at the museum from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday. The Penn School was the first school in the South for former slaves and came to be considered an international model for rural education. Today, it is one of the premier centers for the study of Gullah culture. It is located on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on St. Helena Island, between Beaufort and Fripp Island.
     "The Color of Money" also will be exhibited at Benedict College in Columbia Nov. 24 through Dec. 18 as part of its three-year traveling exhibition.
     To accompany the exhibition, a striking and informative 180-page coffee-table book with 224 color illustrations has been published this fall. It was edited by Gretchen Barbatsis, a professor of telecommunications at Michigan State University.
     In addition to the paintings, the large book contains informative essays on slavery and its legacy extending to the present by Richard G. Doty of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; Curtis Franks, director of museum education and exhibits at the Avery Research Center; Wilmot A. Fraser, a noted author; Jack McCray, a veteran writer with The Post and Courier; and Donald West, a professor at Trident Technical College.
     Doty, curator of American history at the Smithsonian, writes a fascinating, detailed history of how banks were able to print money in the 1800s and how the images on the money evolved. McCray writes in a fascinating manner about the connection between slavery and blues music.
     Having had a number of jobs painting, including working as an illustrator for the Army where he painted a 25-foot-long mural in Korea, Jones is obviously enjoying his hard-won success as he visits Gallery Chuma on John Street, where his paintings are sold. But he doesn't forget the seriousness of the impetus for his exhibit and book.
     "When I paint these slave vignettes, I see the strong and indomitable character of the slaves, the will to survive and to carry on the qualities they brought with them from Africa in the form of music, religion, storytelling, art, agriculture and culinary traditions."
     He adds, "I believe these paintings empower the slaves by giving them a voice that asks us not to reflect on them as the objects in the monochrome engravings on the currency, but rather says, 'Join with us to confront the meaning of a system, past in one sense, painfully persistent in others, which enslaved us.'"
     Jones' great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Jones, had been a slave and showed her grandchildren the scars across her back where she had been whipped as a child. She died in 1963 at the age of 105, when Jones was 13.
     "I point out how some of the images show the slaves as happy, well-treated and healthy workers in an 'unnatural' state of bliss," says Jones in speeches he now gives around the nation where his paintings are exhibited.
     "In many, we do not see pictured hardships. The positive slave images were used as propaganda. They were designed to actively affirm and aggressively promote the slave labor system of their plantation economy. Cotton and slaves were the foundations on which the economy of the South was built."
     Fraser, a nationally known writer and Charleston native, owns the painting "Slave Sowing Seeds." He says of the work, "You can look at the boy's expression and body language and see that he knows he will do this the rest of his life, with no way out, and no pay."
     Fraser, who co-wrote the book, "To Be or Not ... to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie," also owns the work "First Image," a scenario engraved on a $5 bill that he says shows "blacks, whites and what could be Indians, all working together putting up a building, caring for children and picking cotton."
     "I really admire the way that John made the colors of the sky so different in 'First Image' from the sky in 'Slave Sowing Seeds.' The nuances of his work convey the mood of those depicted on the money and make them real," says Fraser.
     Those who allowed their paintings to be loaned out for the exhibition include College of Charleston professor Dr. Jack Bass, who owns "Slave Family Picking Cotton," and his wife, national food writer Nathalie Dupree, who owns "Mississippi Slave." Charlestonian Dr. Harold Rhodes III allowed all 20 of his paintings by Jones to be part of the exhibition.
     One of Rhodes' paintings, titled "Slave Profits," shows Moneta, a Roman goddess of money, claiming the riches of an enslaved labor system. Jones says, "The message is: They work, and she gets the money."
     Another painting, "Admiring Their Slaves," owned by Charleston physician Dr. Alan Rashford, depicts a plantation owner and his wife proudly watching their slaves cutting hay.
     "Slave Overseer with Whip" shows a white man on a horse holding a whip while intently watching blacks tie bales of hay.
     "My hope is that the book and the exhibition will inspire meaningful conversation on issues of slavery and its legacy, and somehow help to heal our wounds," says Jones.
     But then speaking of the modern-day legacy of slavery, he says, "Remember there are all types of slavery. When you ride down the street and see men hard at labor, what color are most of them?" asks Jones. "In any town or city that you visit, you see the legacy of slavery because there is always a 'black' section and a 'white' section - the haves and the have-nots, and typically the have-nots are in the black section."