Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
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The Post & Courier

Avery Exhibit features scenes with slaves on Confederate bills

By Linda Meggett

The economy of the Old South may have been based on slave labor, but artist John Jones never realized that Confederate currency actually contained pictures of slaves at work.

One day, as he worked at a print ship in North Charleston, a customer asked for an enlargement of one of his Confederate bills.

After making the enlargement, an astonished Jones found himself looking at a picture of slaves picking cotton.

He began to investigate, searching the Internet for other Confederate bills. And then he began painting.

Four years later, Jones has an exhibition at the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture in Charleston.

The series, "Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States" features 55 oil paintings of scenes from Confederate currency.

When complete, the series will number 55 paintings. It's on display at the Avery Institute until October.

The exhibit goes beyond art into history, said Jones, a Columbia native and former Summerville resident.

"I didn't know they had slaves on the currency. That's what intrigued me about it," he said. "it's almost like one of the best kept secrets. The stuff on the bills was so small, unless you were looking for it, you'd miss it," Jones said. "I wanted to illuminate what I saw."

It speaks a great deal about how important African-Americans how important to the economic survival of this country. The argument that the Civil War wasn't about slavery wasn't nothing but lies," Jones said.

More than 80 bills depicting slaves circulated throughout the former Confederate states, including the rare $500 bill.

More than half of the paintings have been sold, 11 to Dr. Harold Rhodes of Charleston.

"I've seen Confederate money but never paid attention. These paintings evoked so much emotion, "
Rhodes said. "My only regret is that I didn't have the money to buy the entire collection."

This exhibit is about the truth of how important Africans were to the economy, said Marvin Dulaney, chairman of the history department at the College of Charleston.

It is not a work of revisionist history, Dulaney said: The Confederate state chose the pictures for their own currency.

"We're doing this exhibition because we want to diffuse what have been downright lies that the Confederacy was about states' rights and Southern nationalism. The bottom line is that it was about slavery, using black people to make their millions."

For Reginald Basley, a school counselor who toured the exhibit, the Confederate money was interesting for what it chose to depict.

"That is what slavery was all about - economics," he said after he finished viewing the artwork on display while on tour at the Avery Center. "I am surprised to see it because I had no idea they actually put slaves on the currency."