Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
Original Acrylic on Canvas Paintings by

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The International Review of African American Art
Volume 18 Number 4 2003

Ain't Just Whistling Dixie
Juliette Harris

Reckon-Jefferson Davis is turning in his grave, Know Ol' Massa would be goin' hog wild if he could see how the nigras have taken revenge in a most blasphemous way. They be commandeering the vaunted symbols of the Confederacy and turning them to their own purposes. Be taking darky images off confederate dollars and making paintings out of 'em. Hardly what you'd call dixie doodles. As for that revered symbol of rebeldom, the Confederate flag, they be recoloring it with the red, black and green of pan-Africanism. Kinda like Museum of the Confederacy antimatter, or converse Kara Walker.

The iconoclasts in question, John E. Jones and John Sims, are not a part of a small revisionist school of art, in fact, before now, they weren't even aware of the others' work.

John Jones began to scrutinize Confederate currency six years ago while working at a blueprinting company in Charleston. After enlarging a Confederate bank note for a customer, he was intrigued by the magnified picture of slaves picking cotton. So, he began researching imagery of slavery on Confederate and Reconstruction-era money and was astonished by the widespread depictions of black workers on these currencies.

He has examined 122 bills with engraved illustrations of black people and has created 80 finely-detailed paintings based on the illustrations in a series called, "The Color of Money."

Just as surprising as the pervasiveness of black subjects on the Confederate bills is the stylized beauty of the imagery. No where to be found are the comic coon caricatures that proliferated in the sheet music and in other 19th century printed media. Instead, the depictions of black field workers on some the currency recall the dignity of French peasantry in Barbizon School works such as The Glenaers (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet. And, reminiscent of the handsome, earring-wearing, African American Bone Player of William Sidney Mount (1856) is the cotton-picking man in the jaunty, beribboned hat and hoop earring on a one dollar bill issued by a buildings and loan association in Columbia, South Carolina where John Jones lives today.

John Jones appears to extend the romantization of slavery in his beautifully rendered paintings of the images on the bills. He explains that while he tried to "do them without revision, two stories are really being told" in his work. "The story that the Confederates wanted you to see is 'the happy salve'," Jones says. His "story," however, is to admirably portray black folks' "indomitable will to survive" and "African traditions such as cooking."

Acknowledging that he does create lovely pastoral idylls as background for his work, the artist says that he feels a strong affinity with the South Carolina countryside and he enjoys landscape painting.

In preparing the currency series, Jones strove to understand the Confederate mind. The prevalence of black people on the money, he says, indicates their significance: "People tend to put on the currency what is important to them. You don't see us on the money today!" Indeed Africans were the lifeblood of the people issuing the 'blood money' that, he says, was designed to promote the plantation economy: "the depictions were a form of propaganda to show that slavery was not that bad - to show that (enslaved blacks) were well-fed and relatively well-clothed."

The reality behind the propaganda is something John Jones knows first hand from his paternal greatgrandmother, a former slave who died at age 109 in 1969 when he was 17. (She still bore the scars from whippings.)

A self-trained artist who demonstrates a meticulous mastery of the oil medium, Jones has organized his currency-based paintings into a series called The Color of Money which opened at the Avery Research Center Museum of the College of Charleston, is accompanied by a full-color, 180 page catalogue, and is travelling nationally. The color of Money will be on view in January 2003 at the Rome (NY) Art Center. The series is a part of a much larger narrative by the artist on the African American experience. Visit him at: