Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
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Exhibit's paintings depict scenes of slavery

Sun, Jan 5, 2003


Money from the Old South got a rise out of artist John W. Jones when he realized the paper bills promoted the region's biggest product - slavery - until the Civil War ended. 

Fascinated by small engravings depicting pictures of slaves on the bills, Jones filled canvases with what he saw.  He made the stark pictures larger, more visible and full of color.  Underneath each painting, he placed the Confederate note that inspired the scene.  Jones' exhibit, called "Confederate Currency: the Color of Money," will be on display at the Rome Art & Community Center until the end of January.

His work has attracted national attention with articles in more than 216 publications.  Jones hopes the exhibit will spark open discussions.

"When people view the exhibition, I want them to view it free of censorship," he said.  "I'm not making any personal statement.  "These bills illuminate slavery." 

The Confederate dollar that started it all was a $10 bill from 1853 that a customer wanted enlarged at the print shop in North Charleston, S.C., where Jones worked. 

Seeing a portrayal of slaves picking cotton in a two-inch section of the bill surprised Jones, who did not realize African-Americans were depicted on Confederate money.

He painted the scene in acrylics and started to gather more Confederate bills through eBay and other sites on the Internet, at flea markets and antiques and coin shops.  Agter he completed several canvases, private collectors began to provide more examples of Confederate cash.  In all Jones viewed 122 different bills and possesses 35 of them himself. 

While many of the engravings pictured blacks picking, bailing or transporting cotton to market, other scenes show that slaves were involved in all parts of the South's lower economic structure.
Pictured were people tending to horses, cows, chickens: driving wagons filled with agrarian products: picking corn, wheat, tobacco, sugar; skinning pigs; and working in factories.  "Basically, I painted exactly what I saw on the money to show people these things without revision," Jones said.

While some Southerners maintain that the Civil War was fought over states' rights, Jones says placing slave images on the money stresses that the war was really fought over the slave economy.

At that time, currency issued by various states along with bank notes were circulated nationally.  The printing of smiling, healthy slaves on the money was propaganda to promote the idea that slaves were happy with their lot, Jones says.
"The engravers that printed those bills are like modern photographic journalists, A lot of it is orchestrated and deliberately done to portray a positive side of slavery," he said.

Jones knows the misery that slaves went through.  His grandmother had whip marks on her back all of her life.  However, he says he preferred to paint the pictures without comment, although the clouds, scenery and color make subtle points.

One not-so-subtle point goes with a not-so-subtle painting of the Roman goddess of money who has her fingers and toes on gold coins while slaves toil in the cotton field behind her.  Instead of painting the blond-haired goddess white as portrayed on the currency, Jones adds some brown, suggesting another way in which slaves were used.

The paintings have dramatically changed life for Jones, who couldn't afford to go to college as a youth and ended up in the Army.  Currently, he lectures in colleges across the nation.  He says 97 percent of his paintings are sold.  Last March, Nathan Sellers, president of the Afro-American Heritage Association of Rome, noticed an article in the New York Times about an exhibition of Jones' paintings at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, S.C.

Intrigued, he visited the center on a trip to Charleston and was "very impressed, The exhibit is very educational.  It shows what the war was all about," Sellers said.  "It means to me that the blacks who worked for free had a lot to do with the economy in the South, which made a lot of people wealthy," he said.  "The reason that the Civil War was fought was the economy."

The AAHA enlisted the Rome NAACP chapter to help bring the exhibition here. NAACP President Herbert Thorpe says the exhibit is important for all Americans, "particularly the young people.  They are not aware what went on in the history of the country.  It is not taught in school curriculums, so they think it didn't happen or make light of it.

"Part of the message is that many whites tried to get across that the blacks were happy in slavery and, of course, they were not," Thorpe said.