IT STARTED OUT AS JUST another day at his job at a blueprint company in
North Charleston, S.C. John Jones was in charge of demonstrating and
selling the large printers. A customer came in and asked him to scan and
blow up an old Confederate bill.
"I noticed slaves were on the currency," Jones recalled.
"It was one of those things that makes you go, 'Hmmmm.' I hadn't
seen anything about that in history books."
It was almost as if Jones was destined to discover the currency. He
is an African-American painter who had been chronicling the
African-American experience from the Middle Passage through the Buffalo
Soldiers. The images of slavery on the bills offered him another subject
for his series.
He began looking for similar bills at flea markets, on eBay, at shops
specializing in old currencies. He eventually collected 122. Four years
later, he's painted 80 of the slavery scenes.
"The Color of Money," an exhibit of his paintings and the
Confederate bills is featured at Oakland's African American Museum and
Library, 659 14th St., through June 29.
The currency offers an unusual look at the South's widespread
dependence on slave labor. A man who is a slave picks cotton; a woman
hauls a huge basket of cotton on her shoulder; two people load a bale of
cotton onto a wagon. At a river, a wagon piled high with bales of cotton
is unloaded onto a ship.
A man who is a slave serves food to military men; another butchers a
hog; women who are slaves load sugarcane onto a horse-drawn wagon.
Jones' acrylic paintings are colorful and vivid; the scenes jump off
the canvas. Other than painting the black and white scenes in color, he
didn't alter the images.
"I tried to portray what I found on the bills without any
editing. Some of the faces were so small and the bills so old, you
couldn't see the detail. So sometimes I enhanced the features. Otherwise
I tried to be as true to the images as I could," he said.
Over the years, from 1850 to 1872, when slavery was a common theme on
currency from the confederacy and southern states, the images changed.
In fact, the first images were pictures of white people painted black; a
white man with a bushel of corn became a black man in ragged clothes
with a bushel of corn. A man on horseback passing a field of farmers
harvesting wheat became an overseer watching slave workers picking
Later the images of slavery were created for the bills, and the
people who were slaves were depicted as smiling or slow-witted.
"They became propaganda to promote the idea that slavery was
wonderful, that we enjoyed picking cotton," Jones said.
A bill from the Bank of Yanceyville in North Carolina has a rare
image of people who were slaves working in a factory. Not surprisingly,
none of the hardships of slavery, such as whippings and the sale of
children away from their parents, were shown. Georgia's Timber Cutter's
Bank image of a smiling mother carrying her happy child as she works in
the fields is particularly ironic given slavery's separation of
The currency also clearly links slavery to the health of the South's economy. People who were slaves were the wealth of the South.
Jones described the response to his paintings as overwhelming.
"I thought there would be some local reaction. Never in my wildest
dreams did I think it would become a national thing," he said. The
exhibit opened at the Avery Research Center for African-American History
and Culture at the College of Charleston and is traveling to cities
across the country. From Oakland it goes to Milwaukee.
Most of the paintings have been purchased by collectors.
"This has shown me a side of history I hadn't seen before. And
people I talk to haven't seen or heard of it either," Jones said.
At the exhibit in Oakland, visitors expressed a similar amazement
that this aspect of the country's history has remained untold. First we
learn of insurance policies on people who were slaves and now currency
from the confederacy and southern states depicting idyllic scenes of
slavery. No matter how deep history has been buried, it will bubble up.
As for Jones, he says that day in the blueprint company shop has
changed his life.
"I never dreamed confederate money would play such a big role in
my life," he said, irony noted.
Brenda Payton's column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.