Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States
The color of money
By JIM AUCHMUTEY / Staff
The Old South was never his favorite topic. As a commercial artist descended
from slaves, John W. Jones was more interested in depicting the black history
that began with Emancipation. Then he saw a tiny image that opened his eyes.
A customer at
the blueprint shop where Jones was working wanted a blow-up of an 1853 bank note
from Charleston. When he magnified it, Jones was confronted with a vignette
showing slaves picking cotton.
got out his acrylic paints and canvas and rendered the faded scene in color.
"I wanted to bring them back to life," he says.
later, working with other bills and other vignettes, Jones is still at it.
of Money," an exhibition of 45 of his paintings and the currency that
inspired them, opens Wednesday at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic
Site in downtown Atlanta. The show is part of the National Park Service's effort
to broaden the site's scope beyond the civil rights movement, and will occupy
the same space where a display of lynching photography drew record attendance
As Jones sees
it, the slavery scenes, which were common on antebellum bills, refute the
flaggers and heritage groups that want to downplay the importance of human
bondage in causing the Civil War. If slavery wasn't central to the Confederacy,
he argues, why was it pictured on Southern money?
what matters to you on your money," he says. "I didn't put it there.
the point, the paintings will be displayed with excerpts from the articles of
secession passed by several state legislatures. In Georgia, for instance,
lawmakers mentioned slavery more than 30 times in declaring why the state was
leaving the Union. The exhibition will also include slavery artifacts never
pictured on Southern money, like whips.
Richard G. Doty,
curator of the Smithsonian Institution's numismatic collection, believes the
slave scenes may be unique. As far as he knows, they're the only legal tender
ever issued in the United States that portrays African-Americans.
Until the Civil
War and the standardization of national currency, most paper money in the young
republic was printed by states and banks. Compared to today's greenbacks, with
their staid portraits of dead presidents and stone temples of government, the
earlier money was colorful and varied. In addition to politicians, antebellum
currency carried views of everyday life, of agriculture, industry, commerce and
transportation. Doty estimates that 20 percent of the thousands of Southern
bills he has examined show slaves at work -- raising cotton, cutting sugar cane,
plowing fields, unloading ships, butchering a hog, even taking a nap.
known about the engravings for years.
hidden in plain view," says Jones, who has made it his job to expose them.
At 53, Jones is
a good-humored Army veteran who served in Vietnam and has worked for years as an
illustrator and cartographer. In his studio, a converted tool shed behind his
house in suburban Columbia, he sits at a drafting table in a battered easy
chair, an air conditioner rattling away in the window, and uses a magnifying
glass to scrutinize reproductions of currency printed more than a century and a
half ago. Sometimes he drives into the countryside, stops beside a cotton field
and wanders among the rows trying to imagine what it was like for his ancestors.
After he learned
about the slave imagery in 1996, Jones started visiting flea markets, antique
shops and eventually the Internet looking for the money of the Old South. He has
found 126 different scenes reused in hundreds of bank notes, many of which he
has bought for $20 to $250 apiece. He has painted 87 of them so far on canvases
up to 24-by-36 inches. He also self-published a book on the exhibition, which
has traveled to California, New York, Wisconsin, Louisiana and South Carolina.
people have bought the book than black people," Jones says. The thought has
crossed his mind that a few buyers may regard pictures of contented
cotton-pickers with nostalgia.
scene he knows of -- showing slaves with baskets of the fluffy white stuff --
appeared in 1820 on a $5 bill from the Farmers & Merchants Bank of Augusta.
didn't turn up on currency again until the 1850s, when sectional tensions over
slavery and its extension into Western territories started to boil over.
Enshrining slavery on their folding money was just one of many ways Southerners
rallied to defend their "peculiar institution."
a propaganda tool that reflected the views of the ruling elite. That's why you
see only happy slaves on those bills," says Jules d'Hemecourt, a mass
communications professor at Louisiana State University, who curated an show on
antebellum money there.
banks starting requesting slave scenes, the Northern engravers who made the
plates at first recycled images of white people. A $3 bill issued by the
Citizens Bank of Washington shows a white farmer toting a basket of corn. On a
$50 note across the Potomac in Virginia, the same farmer has darkened skin.
In his painting
"Slave Picking Corn," Jones gave the fellow a big grin and a flashy
purple shirt with a striped collar. "A lot of people think he's a
pimp," the artist laughs.
Later in the
1850s, engravers started making scenes specifically for the Southern market. One
of the most common shows a smiling slave mother holding a baby who seems
delighted to be clutching part of a tobacco plant.
is loaded," says the Smithsonian's Doty. "A mother and child happy
about the thing that enslaves them -- I think that's kind of obscene."
For the most
part, Jones tried to render the images as they appear. But in many cases, the
figures are so small and indistinct that he had them blown up 400 and 500
percent at Kinko's and still had to use his imagination to fill in the details.
He had to dress them, color them, give them faces (which explains why many of
his slaves resemble friends and relatives).
adds an editorial spin.
Slave," based on a $3 bill from North Carolina, he started with a neutral
scene of an overseer watching a slave woman feed pigs. He added a leer to the
man's face, a sidelong glance to the woman's, and created a plantation
mini-drama about miscegenation.
Profits," based on a popular allegory showing a pale-faced goddess with a
cotton plant and bags of gold, Jones upended the symbolism by remaking her as an
attractive bronze-skinned woman in robes of regal purple -- Lena Horne among the
Jones shares at
least one sentiment with the slaveholding culture that made the money: It pays
to make people look happy.
"I tried to
keep them smiling because most people don't like grim figures in their
house," he says. "I do want to sell these things."
paintings fetching as much as $7,000, Jones now finds himself in a joyfully
have thought," he says, "that I might be able to retire on Confederate