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

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Les Payne

Les Payne

Confederate Money Had a Cold Standard

August 11, 2002

The paintings of John W. Jones are fetching on their merits but thundering when one probes their history.

The South Carolina artist has worked some 80 acrylics on canvas, depicting scenes of the Old South when things were a bit more disturbed. His subjects, however, and most of them are blacks, are strangely at ease in their slave setting where they toiled endlessly for no pay.

Any frequenter of American museums, galleries and other public space exhibiting arts and photographs will notice a stark difference straightaway. Unless it is so stated in the brochure, black images, at any contemporary showing, are most likely to be very rare indeed. Jones' exhibit is showing at the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.

"The Color of Money" is the theme of Jones' slave-time paintings. Each painting was drawn from an actual engraving on a banknote of the period. The artist stumbled across his new life's work quite by chance. Working as an illustrator in North Carolina, he drew an assignment to enlarge an engraved scene on an Old Confederate banknote. "I found myself looking at a picture of slaves picking cotton." Further research showed that such a scene was a prevailing image on the currency of the mid-1800s.

"I was surprised that so many of the images on the currency were of slaves," said Jones, who discussed his work at a journalists' conference in Milwaukee last week. "Whites in the South back then considered slaves, and holding slaves, as a symbol of wealth."

Who better to put on Confederate currency than the South's chief symbol of wealth: American slaves?

These days, it's all about the Benjamins.

During the Confederacy, it was all about the slaves.

For the uncool, that is to say old money, that's Benjamin as in Franklin. Not the kite-flyer so much as the statesman-printer-scientist-philosopher-musician-economist who made his way onto the $100 bill. Franklin was one of the most beloved Americans rewarded, as were Abe Lincoln, Jefferson and the others, with his visage staring out from the nation's paper money.

Being immortalized in the lush green of the currency is perhaps the republic's highest tribute to an individual's contribution to its wealth and power. The face on the money is a sure sign of true value in this citadel of capitalism. It has always been so, even during the Colonial days.

Back then, of course, there was no strong federal government, no gold standard, so paper currency was printed by banks with what few presses that existed. Each state had the authority to print its own currency and drew upon its commerce and industry for inspiration.

Competing to attract customers for their banknotes, printers were encouraged to engrave peacefully pastoral scenes with contented subjects.

"The engraved images show the slaves as happy, well-treated and healthy workers in an 'unnatural' state of bliss," said Jones. "We do not see hardships, such as slaves being whipped. The positive slave images were used as propaganda."

Jones, using a magnifying glass, is as truthful to the banknote images as practical. His field workers, drivers and workers on the docks are healthy, contented, dignified. On images where the races are mixed, no doubt is left that the white man, often on horseback, is in complete command.

The iconography of slavery on Confederate notes is richly preserved by collectors who hoard this currency. Since branching into this art enterprise in 1996, Jones has tapped into this rich vein through the internet. Collectors provide him with a steady stream of currency with new images for him to paint emerging all the time.

"When I paint these slave vignettes," Jones said, "I see strong and indomitable characters as slaves, the will to survive and carry on the qualities they brought with them from Africa in the form of music, religion, storytelling, art, agriculture and the culinary traditions. The paintings empower the slaves by giving them a voice that asks us not to reflect on them as the objects in the monochrome engravings on the currency, but rather, to join with them to confront the meaning of a system, past in one sense, painfully persistent in others, which enslaved them."

It goes almost without saying that, with such sensitivity, Jones is indeed a descendant of slaves himself. The painter joins historian and conservationist in Jones' passion for preserving with purposeful art what the South recorded unwittingly for the ages.

If ever there is doubt about the central role slaves played in the South, that is to say, America, one needs look no further than its dollar bills.

"With our labor, we built the economy of the South," Jones said. "The banks even had to say so. Just show them the money."

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.