Banking on slavery
By Derrick Z. Jackson, 8/7/2002
MILWAUKEE JOHN W.
JONES believes his great-great grandmother would be pleased with his art.
Carrie Viola Jones was born a slave. Sometime before the age of 12, she
received from her master or overseer a whipping so brutal that the scars
on her back lasted all the rest of her 109 years. She died in 1963, when
Jones was 13.
''She wouldn't say much about the scars,'' Jones said. ''She showed
them to us, but as a kid I felt so far removed from slavery that I don't
remember that it had much of an impact. But the more I do what I'm doing,
the more I think about what incredible strength, determination, and
courage she had to survive all that and live as long as she did.''
Jones, a 52-year-old South Carolinian, is no longer removed from
slavery. He now depicts the strength and scars of his ancestors. In 1996
he was working at a blueprint shop in Charleston when a man came in to
order a blowup of some Confederate money. When Jones reviewed the blowup,
he saw slaves. Jones, a serious painter in his spare time, was so shocked
that he furiously collected more browned and grayed Confederate bills with
slaves picking cotton, corn, and tobacco or loading barrels on docks,
often cheerfully. Jones brought the scenes to life in full color paintings
that are currently on display in Milwaukee - along with the currency - at
America's Black Holocaust Museum.
''It is the undeniable, indisputable truth that the Confederacy was
very open about the fact that the backbone of its economy was slave
labor,'' Jones said. ''You hear all these politicians and people who
support flying the Confederate flag saying, `Oh, it's only states'
rights.' Oh, it's states' rights all right. States' rights meant it was
all right to keep slaves.''
Southern banks and businesses used the image of compliant slaves on
currency as propaganda to maintain morale over the immoral institution. In
some of his pieces Jones replicates the propaganda with bright, happy
faces. In others he subverts the currency's intent with severe grimaces
and piercing eyes. In one piece he changes a white goddess of money with
slaves in the background into a mulatto, a clear dig at the exploitation
of black labor and the rape of black women by white masters.
The exhibition becomes even more timely as one reads that much of the
Confederate currency printed prior to the Civil War was printed not in the
South but in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. It is one more example
how slavery's profits were enjoyed by the entire nation.
One bill collected by Jones depicts slaves and George Washington, a
slave owner. Another bill collected by Jones was issued by the Atlantic
and Gulf Railroad, which today is owned by CSX. CSX was one of the
companies named this year in a major slavery reparations lawsuit.
In the book for Jones's exhibition, Richard Doty, a curator at the
Smithsonian Institution, wrote, ''The decade or so between the Compromise
of 1850 and the outbreak of the 1861 war provides us with one of the
clearest links between our money and outside events. People of color were
at its center.'' The central position of people of color is a reminder why
it is no small thing when major politicians such as Attorney General John
Ashcroft romanticize the Confederacy.
In a 1998 interview, the former Missouri senator praised Confederate
leaders as ''Southern patriots'' who needed to be defended by historians
''or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives,
subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted
When the South's sacred fortune of free labor ended in the Civil War,
Robert E. Lee and his wife gave voice to a new perverted agenda to keep
black people far away from the center of power. Mary Custis Lee, wrote,
''When we get rid of the Freedmen's Bureau and can take the law in our own
hands we may perhaps do better. If they would only take their pets North
it would be happy riddance to all.''
John Jones shows why it was not so easy to get rid of the ''pets.'' The
slaves, in the fullness of his acrylics, are as vibrant with humanity as
Carrie Viola Jones must have been to live to 109 despite the scars on her
back. ''We were all on that money, and we never got a chance to spend
it,'' Jones said. ''There's probably no reasonable way to compensate for
that. But when you see these bills, you can't deny how this country was
built. You can say, like the cliche, our history is `right on the
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 8/7/2002.
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.