Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States
The Building of America on the Backs of An Enslaved People: The Color of Money Exhibition
“For the love of money is the root of all evil… (1 Ti 6:10)
In the spring of 2001, a colleague of Capital University and I orchestrated a study trip for students from Capital and Denison to Charleston, S.C., for the purpose of introducing students to aspects of slavery that existed during the confederacy era. Little did I know the tremendous impact this study trip would personally have on me. We toured the Sea Islands, the southern estates where our forebears were constricted to serve at the pleasure of both “master” and “misses.” We were awe struck by the fact that many of the slave quarters were still in tact. The spirits of our slave ancestors loomed large as we roamed the quarters and the “big house.” It was interesting to note the degree to which slavery was glamorized, and presented not only as a documented fact, but almost as an expectation that the evil institution of slavery should have happened, albeit I’m sure the guide would not have characterized it as such.
As part of our visit, we also spent time at the home of the infamous Philip Simmons, an African American master blacksmith/designer in Charleston, S.C. The works of Mr. Simmons (1912- ) dawns some of the most noted establishments in Charleston and the Lowcountry. Known to have crafted over 500 different designs in wrought iron, Mr. Simmons’ work graces many homes, churches, schools and gardens around the Charleston area. There are commissioned public sculptures of his designs at the Charleston International Airport, the South Carolina State Museum, as well as the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. An interesting note about this master designer is that while his work has provided breathtaking beauty to many buildings in and around Charleston, the artist’s residence was a rather dilapidated house. We were told that Mr. Simmons chooses to live a very simple life, as he has very little personal use for money, but instead has made a conscious effort to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to help low-income, young African Americans attend college.
The final stop of our tour, and perhaps the one that left the most lasting impression, was our stop at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. The Avery Research Center is affiliated with the College of Charleston and serves as a clearinghouse for the works of many artists and crafts—the sweet grass baskets, directional quilts (quilts used with symbols to direct the slaves as they “ran their way to freedom”). Housed in the Avery Research Center also was an amazing collection of art by John W. Jones, entitled “The Color of Money.
While others within my party searched out other collections within the center, I was particularly drawn to “The Color of Money” exhibition, but each time I would attempt to leave this particular collection, I found myself repeatedly wandering back to this exhibition. My query of the artist and these paintings, set me on a path that has caused me to raise more questions, than perhaps there are answers. The work itself gave voice to “the institution of slavery,” in a way that heretofore, had conveniently been ‘e-raced’ from the annals of our history. The images of slavery as depicted in “The Color of Money” exhibition tell their own story, and provide a poignancy that while Jones adds color to breathe life into the spirits of our slave mothers and fathers, still leave the viewer with the haunting reality of the evilness of slavery. Perhaps it was this reality-- seeing the images of our slave mothers and fathers on currency that caused me to want to know more.
Upon my return to Granville, immediately I began searching out the artist and invited him to Denison to be a part of an upcoming 2001 colloquium entitled, “The Case for Reparations: Does America Owe?” This visit seemed fitting, as Jones’ art clearly gave credence to the argument that America was indeed built on the backs of slaves. If the South engaged slavery as its chief commodity, if the South dared to have images of our forebears on the money that was used daily to transact all forms of business, including the purchase of slaves, then the question was not whether America owes the descendants of slaves; rather, the questions that demanded an answer were: How much does America owe? Why is America in denial that slavery existed for profit? Why have African Americans largely remained silent, thereby allowing this evil to become glamorized? Why have we not demanded our story be told, in much the same way the Jews have demanded the (re) telling of their story? Why, at the very least, have we not shared the realities of slavery to our children?
Hosea 4:6 says “my people perish for lack knowledge.” If we were to make our children and our children’s children aware of our Black History, would such ‘truth-telling’ help to create in them a sense of worth, purpose and direction? Would it help to stop the self annihilation--the shootings, rapes, self hatred?
Because we have been negligent in our responsibility to not only enlighten our children and ‘other’ children [the term ‘other’ children embrace the village concept and are defined as those individuals who are not related to us biologically, but who also fall under our umbrella of protection] to provide them with a template to not only recognize covert and overt forms of racism but to confront and rise above this evil, we are perishing. Further, because we have strayed and stayed away from such ‘truth telling’ the redemptive nature of who we are—descendants of mighty kings and queens may never be reclaimed or aspired.
Prior to the artist’s visit to Denison, “The Color of Money” series for the most part was localized— having been on loan to the Avery Research Center from February – December 2001. Indeed, if you did not have reason to travel to Charleston and to the Avery Research Center, you would not have been introduced to this magnificent work. Mr. Jones’ visit to Denison charted a path for the exhibition and the accompanying lecture to be placed on the national lecture circuit. Many of us who were privileged to hear his first lecture were filled with mixed emotions -- excitement, astonishment over the widespread use of slaves on currency, and perhaps more importantly, shock over the reality of the exhibition as well as the fact that were it not for the discovery by Mr. Jones, we would have continued to operate in a state of oblivion that this chapter of our history existed.
I should note to the reader, that Mr. Jones was not aware that such currency (which represented a way of life for 19th century white America), ever existed, until a customer entered a print shop in which he was employed and asked that he enlarge a confederate bill. The irony of this visit is that the customer intended to put the enlarged bill in a gaming machine. When the bill was enlarged, the discovery was made by Mr. Jones that there was an image of a slave on the note. Mr. Jones set out on a mission to locate as many notes of confederate currency as possible. According to Mr. Jones, of the approximate 3000 confederate notes printed, 300 of them bear images of slavery. This discovery might be labeled by some as purely accidental, but for those who operate in the spiritual realm, we quickly conclude that it was a providential unearthing –one lying dormant, awaiting the arrival of the right artist to tell the story as our enslaved ancestors would have it told.
“The Color of Money” exhibition began its travel tour in April 2002, and to date, has traveled to the following places: The African American Museum and Library, Oakland, CA; America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Milwaukee, WI; Benedict College, Columbia, S.C; Rome Art and Community Center, Rome NY; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA; Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic, Atlanta, GA; and most recently, Capital University.
The exhibition drives home the startling reality that slavery existed for the sole purpose of economic gain. The exhibition punctuates the exploitation of Blacks for profit! This statement becomes all the more poignant when one examines the notes and realizes that it was not unusual for a singular image [for example “Slave Carrying Cotton”] to be depicted on 21 different notes in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee (Confederate Currency: The Color of Money, pg. 152-156). It is also interesting to note that regardless of the form of labor (“Slaves Picking Cotton,” ”Slaves Carrying Cotton,” “Slaves at Sugarcane Plantation”), there exists a confederate note depicting slaves engaged in that labor.
As descendants of an enslaved African people, we can continue to choose to ignore, deny and perhaps even forget that slavery existed, but rather than fall prey to either of these practices, we would be well advised to critically examine and engage the realities of this aspect of our history and determine that God did not bring us this far for us to SIT! The very fact that we made it-- through the trials and treatment of us as disposable goods, is testament that God has kept us, and continues to sustain us for a reason.
It was the love of money that caused the ignominious evil of slavery to exist. May it not be this same evil--our love of money-- that causes us to engage in assimilative practices. Such practices continue to keep us apart and deny us the opportunity to celebrate the fact that in spite of the portraits the confederate notes display, and the many ways in which we have been and are victimized, we are indeed made in God’s image. Therefore we are called to take a stand, for generations---following!
Dr. Betty M. Lovelace
Collector of “Slaves at Sugarcane Plantation”
“Slave on Horseback”
Barbatsis, Gretchen. (2002). John W. Jones and New Directions Publishing, Inc.
West Columbia, SC