Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
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 Sacramento.com

 Sacbee.com

 

Counting the costs

A new exhibit at Oakland's African American Museum and Library follows the money

By Fahizah Alim -- Bee Staff Writer
(Published 7:00 a.m. PST Wednesday, May. 8, 2002)

Watkins
Erica Watkins, a curator at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, explains a painting, "Slaves on the Levee," that re-creates a scene on Southern bills in the 1800s.

Sacramento Bee/Owen Brewer

Slaves
Bills depicting slaves working in the 19th century South were collected by John W. Jones, who then made paintings of the scenes.

Sacramento Bee/Owen Brewer

Charles
The museum recently moved into the refurbished, two-story, 17,500-square-foot, 100-year-old Charles Greene building in downtown Oakland.

Sacramento Bee/Owen Brewer

Stan Sneed couldn't believe his eyes. The audacity, the misrepresentations. The greed.

While wandering around the historic streets of Charleston, S.C., last October, the Oakland resident stumbled across an art exhibit that displayed a little-known fact:

Putting enslaved Africans on currency was a widespread practice throughout the South during the 19th century.

Peering at the grotesquely smiling faces, Sneed formed the single-minded goal to "show the money" -- bring the exhibit to Northern California because he was sure most people here are not aware that the characterizations of slaves were used in such a manner.

"I was first struck by the subject matter," says Sneed, chief information officer for the American Red Cross, Bay Area.

"The fact that Southerners dared to put slaves on their currency to represent their free labor is something that Californians need to know, because we are too far away to fully understand what had gone on (during slavery)."

So, with the help of several committed friends and colleagues, Sneed brought the exhibit to Oakland last month.

"Confederate Currency: The Color of Money" is being shown at the new African American Museum and Library at Oakland through June 29.

Featuring original bills and 60 oil paintings that reproduce the currency in a larger format, the show is one of the museum's first major exhibits since its grand opening in February, when it moved into its newly restored home in the historic Charles Greene building in downtown Oakland.

Most of the bills show scenes of cotton-picking. One shows a white overseer supervising field hands from his horse, with a whip in one hand. Another shows a couple smiling as they watch their slaves working in the fields.

Slaves are shown happily loading sugar cane onto wagons, chopping wheat and leading cattle. One bill even shows George Washington looking upon the cotton-picking with admiration.

The African American Museum and Library was established in 1994 as a merger between the Oakland Public Library and the Northern California Center for African American History and Life, with a mission to discover, preserve, interpret and share the historical and cultural experiences of African Americans.

It was previously located at Oakland's Golden Gate Library, but now it has a home of its own.

The museum building also houses Marcus Book Store, a noncirculating reference library with 30,000 titles, historical collections, original manuscripts, letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, oral histories and African American periodicals, some dating to the 1890s.

The two-story, 17,500-square-foot, 100-year-old building -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- proved to be the perfect venue for Sneed's undertaking.

"This is a wonderful ... exhibit for our consortium," says Rick Moss, chief curator of the museum. "Bringing it here has been a wonderful collaborative effort that we need to continue and see replicated throughout this community."

The "Color of Money" has been exhibited only at three universities, including Charleston College's Avery Research Center, where Sneed first saw it.

The paintings in the exhibit were created by John W. Jones, who was on hand for the show's Northern California unveiling, speaking before a packed house about his research and his work. A Charleston artist and commercial illustrator, Jones was introduced to one of the bills when a collector came into his blueprint shop and asked him to enlarge it.

In the process of doing so, Jones saw a contented slave picking cotton.

"I was shocked and excited," Jones recalls.

And inspired to look deeper.

"I started asking questions about where the collector had gotten the bill," says Jones, a dapper and genteel African American man from the South.

"We had built the economy of the South ... but no one had seen these images or realized what was actually on the bills."

Jones found that the bills began appearing in the 1820s but the practice halted for about 30 years. When the abolitionist movement started gaining momentum in 1850, the scenes started being printed again.

In one particularly telling depiction, Jones recaptures the Roman goddess of money holding a cotton plant as bags of gold spill around her feet. In the background, an overseer watches over a field of slaves.

Jones began searching flea markets and eBay to collect the old currency, buying the bills one by one. After about two years, he had more than 80 different bills in denominations ranging from $1 to a rare $500 bill.

He then set upon capturing what was on the bills on canvas -- a task that took another six years.

All of the paintings he has finished have been sold and are on loan for the exhibition from private collections. He says he has more paintings to complete.

One African American doctor in Charleston had purchased 25 of the paintings, whose prices started at $1,500.

Jones is philosophical about the project.

"These scenes show what they were thinking of us," he says. "They wanted the people to see the idea that slavery was just wonderful and also very profitable.

"It also speaks a great deal about how important African Americans were to the economic survival of this country. The argument that the Civil War was about states' rights and not about slavery was nothing but lies."

Dr. Deborah Wafers, an Oakland physician who attended the exhibit's unveiling, agrees.

"Putting African slaves on money like this reflects the South's dire need to maintain an aristocracy and reinforce the notion that, as chattel, the Africans they enslaved were enormously important to them maintaining their economic position.

"This museum is an ideal place ... to learn about the culture of African people throughout the diaspora."

At the end of the day, Wade Nobles, a professor of black studies at San Francisco State University, was satisfied with the thoughtful responses to the exhibit.

"This museum must be a repository of intellectual and cultural tradition of African people throughout the world and serve as a place where African Americans can come together and dialogue about what is good for us," he says.

But perhaps Woody Carter, the president of Oakland's Black United Fund who devoted countless hours to help bring the exhibit to Oakland, put it best.

"It is very important that we claim this space and not make it just a place for dead things that sit on walls."

 

Confederate Currency: The Color of Money

 

On exhibit noon-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through June 29; African American Museum and Library, 659 14th St., Oakland; free. (510) 637-0200 or www.oaklandlibrary.org.

How to get there: Take Interstate 80 west to I-580 east, to I-980 west (downtown Oakland). Exit I-980 at the 14th and 18th Street ramp, get in the middle lane, and turn left at 14th Street to the museum.

About the Writer
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The Bee's Fahizah Alim can be reached at (916) 321-1068 or falim@sacbee.com.

 
2001-2002  John W. Jones. All rights reserved.