Tribune national correspondent
Published May 27, 2003
ATLANTA -- In the 138 years since the Civil War ended, a question has lingered
over the South as hauntingly as the memories of the soldiers who gave their
lives on the battlefield: How important was slavery to the Confederacy?
Historians have debated the question, yet the answer remains elusive. And in a
place where the past often clashes with the present, the issue forms a dividing
line that pits blacks against whites and lovers of the Old Confederacy against
those who loathe it.
An exhibit that opened last
week at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site seeks to offer insight
into the complex relationship between the Old South and its slaves. The display
of paintings and Confederate currency reveals a little-known fact in America:
that slaves were routinely depicted on paper money in the South from the
mid-1800s until the early 1900s.
If nothing more, South Carolina artist John Jones said, his collection of
acrylic paintings on canvas discredits a long-standing Southern assertion that
the war was solely an issue of states' rights and proves that it was as much or
more about holding on to an inhumane institution that fueled the region's
"The history of a country, its values and economy are often reflected in
its money. This shows what was going on during the Civil War and antebellum
periods, and what it says about the importance of slavery is right on the
money," Jones said. "The engravings are a visual smoking gun that
document how much free slave labor enriched America."
According to historians, slaves began showing up on Southern money as early as
1820, and the images proliferated in the 1850s as the debate over slavery heated
up in America. Prior to the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913,
institutions printed their own money freely, and in the South, blacks were one
of the primary subjects. They are shown on bank notes, currency and bonds issued
by banks, hotels and railroads. They are shown planting, picking and hauling
cotton and tending cattle.
The slaves depicted on the currency are often shown with smiling faces,
seemingly enjoying duties of forced labor. According to historians, that is
because the bills were largely distributed as propaganda, an effort to show
Northerners and Southerners alike that slavery was not as bad as abolitionists
had portrayed it.
"In the early to mid-1850s, there was an attempt to portray slaves as they
worked. It was all matter-of-factly; they happened to be black slaves working on
the plantation," said Richard Doty, curator of the Smithsonian
Institution's numismatic collection. "In the mid-1850s, there was a growing
and endless controversy in America over slavery, beginning with the publication
of `Uncle Tom's Cabin' [in 1852]. People were going into Congress armed to the
teeth intending duels, and images of blacks changed on the notes.
"Instead of a matter-of-factly guy cutting cane, he was cutting cane and
liking it. The images of grinning slaves on money bolstered the opinion down
South that slavery was a good thing, and they hoped that Northerners would look
at it and figure the slaves were better off than they had thought," Doty
The wounds of the Civil War have not completely healed in America. Heated
disagreements over affirmative action, the Confederate battle flag and
reparations for descendants of slaves have become prolific and are, some
scholars say, in part the aftermath of unresolved issues.
"Hardly a day goes by when the question of the Confederacy does not come
up, that its legacy does not impact some dimension of everyday life and public
policy," said John Coski, a historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in
Richmond, Va. "The Civil War was fought over issues people felt strongly
about, issues about states' rights, the economy, slavery and African-American
participation in American life.
Cities throughout the country are beginning to look seriously at the economics
of slavery and how individuals and corporations benefited financially from the
practice. Several cities have passed resolutions to study reparations.
Last year, Chicago became the first major city to pass an ordinance requiring
all businesses vying for city contracts to search their records and disclose
whether they profited from slavery. Three years ago, California passed
legislation requiring insurers doing business with the state to disclose similar
During the past year, several lawsuits have been filed against railroads,
tobacco corporations, textile-makers and insurers, seeking to hold them
financially accountable for the profits made from slaves.
Some African-American historians said that exhibits such as "Confederate
Currency: The Color of Money," bolster the case for reparations and
"This tells us that in spite of what neo-Confederates are saying today that
the war was not about slavery, it was essential and integral to the Southern
economy and that indeed was what they were fighting about," said Marvin
Dulaney, director of the Avery Research Center for African American History at
the College of Charleston.
`We deserve reparations'
"History books don't take account of how important African-Americans were
in building this country. But the money does. This is visual representation of
what we have done for America and a confirmation that we deserve
Historian Jules d'Hemecourt agrees that slavery was important to the economy,
but he said it was not the only thing.
"We know the economic impact of slavery was profound because the area of
the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans had more millionaires than
anywhere else. Cotton was king and slaves helped that to happen," said
d'Hemecourt, a mass communications professor at Louisiana State University who
was the curator of an exhibit there on antebellum money.
"But it was part of a mosaic. Less than 10 percent of the money circulated
in the South before the war, during the war and during Reconstruction had slaves
on it," he said.
Though the money speaks of how slavery helped drive the economy, Coski said,
other pictures appeared more frequently on the 72 known pieces of Confederate
currency--steamships, railroads, classical figures and political leaders among
"After the war, Southerners became very defensive about slavery, and lot of
people have tried to run away from the importance of slavery to the South. But
white Southerners of the Confederate generation knew how important slavery
was," Coski said. "We have to recognize the complexity of Civil War
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