Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
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Posted on Sun, Nov. 17, 2002

'The Color of Money'
Blythewood artist draws attention to the slaves depicted on Confederate bills

Staff Writer

In 1996, John W. Jones was working at a graphics company in North Charleston, when a customer brought in a piece of paper he wanted enlarged.

It was a $10 bill issued by the Farmers & Exchange Bank of Charleston in 1853.

As Jones, a graphic artist by profession and painter by avocation, worked on it, something caught his eye. It wasn't the scene at the top of the bill of Charleston Harbor filled with tall sailing ships.

Jones was ensnared by a tiny picture, only two inches tall, of four slaves picking cotton.

"I was sort of shocked - and interested," said Jones, 52. "I didn't know there were African-Americans on any money, let alone Confederate money."

That night, he got on the Internet and started looking for images of money from the pre-war South. Black faces kept showing up.

Jones went home and started a painting of that slave family.

"I've tried to give the people on the money a voice they didn't have," said Jones, a soft-spoken, scholarly looking man of few words. "I tried to stay true to the images on the money, but I wanted to make them real."

He kept at it for about three years, completing 80 paintings based on slaves pictures from the money.

These form the exhibition "The Color of Money: Images of Slavery in Confederate and Southern State Currency." It will open Friday at Benedict College

LONG NIGHTS

That $10 bill showed up at an interesting time. A battle was going on over the Confederate flag flying above the S.C. State House. Once again some people argued that slavery wasn't a defining issue of the South and that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery either.

For Jones, pictures of slaves on money was direct evidence that slavery was a vital Southern institution and symbol of what made the South ... well, the South.

"These (images) are kind of a visual smoking gun," said Jones, who lives surrounded by family near Parklane Road. "Putting these images on money was the way to legitimize it.

"It's right there on the money. I didn't put it there."

"The Color of Money" was first shown at the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston in 2001, where it drew national attention, including a story in The New York Times.

Marvin Dulaney, Avery Center director, met Jones around 1995 and even commissioned him to do a painting of the Charleston slave market. Jones showed him some of the 20 money illustration paintings he'd done.

"I was fascinated," said Dulaney. "This was a story we could tell that had never been told before."

Paint more, Dulaney told him, and we'll do a show. So Jones hunkered down in his tiny studio in a small blue building behind his house. He often started working at midnight, spending many a long night between 1997 and the end of 2000 in the narrow space with a drafting table, some filing cabinets, issues of the National Geographic and a small twin bed for naps.

When the paintings were shown at the Avery Center last year, "it was one of the biggest things we'd ever done," Dulaney said. "People bought every one of them and gave us donations to buy a couple for the center."

Since the first show, "The Color of Money" also has been at the African-American Museum and Library in Oakland, Calif. and the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, and is scheduled to be shown in Louisiana and New York.

COMMON IMAGES

Pictures of slaves began appearing regularly on Southern bank currency during the 1850s, said Richard Doty, curator of American History at the Smithsonian Institute and an expert on currency. (Paper money was created by banks starting around 1780. The U.S. government began issuing paper money, unifying the form, in 1861.)

The slave imagery varies, but the basic theme is black people working.

 A white man on horseback, whip in his hand, watches slaves picking cotton on a bill from Fairfield, S.C.

 A Virginia note depicts a white man and woman stand by a tree watching slaves harvest wheat.

 Others are almost like portraits, such as one from the Central Bank of Alabama of a young man with a basket of cotton, and another from the Timber Cutter's Bank in Georgia, on which a woman holds a child on her shoulder and lifts her tobacco-laden apron.

Jones depicts the slaves in bright clothing. He lavishes attention on the sky, sometimes filling it with scudding gray clouds, other times making it the violet of evening or yellow-hot midday.

In one, a man with the bushel of corn wears a purple shirt with wide striped purple-and-whitecollar. He smiles at the viewer.

He's taken tiny images, where the slaves' faces can barely be seen, and brought them and the land around them to life.

LETTING THEM LOOK

The paintings carry prosaic titles: "Slave Leading Cattle," "Slave Taking a Rest," "The Grinder and the Slave," "Slave Riding Horse" and "Montgomery Slaves."

Jones didn't see any reason to have the titles carry some big message, and he didn't think it was necessary to beat anyone over the head.

"I didn't want to make a statement in that way," he said. "Let the artwork stand on its own. It all tells a story. All you need to do it look at it."

Chuma Nwokike, owner of the Chuma Gallery in Charleston, says this approach makes the art more powerful because it doesn't provide easy answers.

"Sometimes people wonder, 'Why would he paint happy slaves?'" Nwokike said. "But that's the way they were presented on the money. Changing it would be revising history.

"He just put it out there and lets people react the way they want to. He hasn't gone to one extreme or the other with it."

In a self-published book by Jones with the same name as the exhibition, Richard Doty of the Smithsonian calls the pictures of happy and healthy slaves on money propaganda for slavery.

"One (slave) smiled at the onlooker on a 50-dollar bill ... Surely, he was enjoying his work, and that work must be beneficial to America, and to him," writes Doty. "He dreamed and dozed his life away; it was just as well that he was in bondage ..."

The bill and painting most important to Jones is the one that he has changed the most, "Slave Profits."

The $5 bill from the Georgia Savings Bank in Macon depicts Moneta, the Roman goddess of money. She holds a branch of cotton, with four large bolls. Gold coins spill from sacks around her. Behind her left shoulder, a train rumbles by. To the right, 15 slaves pick cotton.

On the currency, Moneta is white.

Jones has painted her as a woman of mixed race, with medium brown skin and thick blond hair.

To Jones, it's all connected: slavery, cotton, commerce, the sexual exploitation of black women.

"I think that sums it up - it was all about money," Jones said.

ART AND HISTORY

Born in 1950, Jones grew up in Blythewood when it was country.

"I watched Interstate 20 being built," said Jones, who is usually dressed in a soft brown hat, stylish loafers and crisp shirt. His clothes tend to be muted, much like his manner.

His father was superintendent of gardens at a state mental hospital not far away. His brother Eddie, five years his senior, also drew, and both of them frequently borrowed art books from the school library.

"I've done art since I was 6," Jones said. "I drew in the dirt. My father wouldn't let us draw on paper. That was for school."

Jones always has been interested in history as well as art.

Hanging on the wall in his brother's house is a cap-and-ball pistol that's been in the family since 1851, although it originally belonged to the white side of the family.

The Jones family always told storiesabout their origins. But like many other African-Americans, Jones became more interested when the miniseries "Roots" was broadcast in 1977.

Prompted by the movie "Glory," he began doing paintings based on the 54th Massachusetts, an nearly all-black Union regiment wiped out on South Carolina's Morris Island during the Civil War. He has painted pictures of the Buffalo Soldiers, the black soldiers who fought Native Americans in the late 19th century.

Jones couldn't afford college.

"I was invited by the president to participate in the war in Vietnam," he said with a grim smile.

After that tour, he re-enlisted twice, spending eight years as an illustrator, doing everything from drawing maps to painting murals, in South Korea and various U.S. bases.

"I was young and wild and chasing women," he said.

After leaving the Army, he worked for various graphics firms, but mostly as a freelance illustrator and graphics person. He got married and moved to Summerville in 1996, then got divorced and came back to Columbia in '98 to care for his mother. She died last year.

He lives in his mother's old house next door to his brother and close to other relatives on land his great-uncle bought at least 50 years ago.

Jones painted several versions of Caravaggio's 16th century painting of Christ being removed from the cross. He gave the first one to a church but noticed they'd taken it down after a few weeks.

"They told me, 'We're a black church, and the people in the painting are white,' he said and shook his head.

He did another copy of the Caravaggio with dark-skinned people but didn't give it to the church. He sold it to a collector.

END OF SERIES

The money series is winding down. Jones thinks he's seen most of the money with slave images on it, although Louisiana State University, which is interested in showing his paintings, has a currency collection containing a few bills new to him. The works have sold very well for $1,500 to $8,000 each.

Some collectors have several. One has 20. About a third of the people who bought the originals are white, Nwokike said. People who have bought the paintings live all over the country.

"I have two or three left," Jones said. "Most of these paintings are long gone.

"I would have liked to keep all of them, but I'm doing this for a living."

Although Jones is serious about the series and what it shows, he's rather bemused by how it all came about.

"I would never have thought Confederate money would be so important to me," he said.

Jones never again saw the man who brought in that $10 issued by the Farmers and Exchange Bank of Charleston and brought the money to his attention. Even with all the attention Jones' work has received, the person never has reappeared.

"He doesn't know what he started," Jones said.

IF YOU GO

'The Color of Money'

When: Benedict College Business Development Center, 3601 Read St. (the intersection of Two Notch Road and Read St.)

Where: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Dec. 18.

Cost: Free.

Contact: (803) 758-4460