Artist captures images of slavery printed on Confederate currency
November 3, 2002
BY DOTTIE ASHLEY
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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."