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depict scenes of slavery
Sun, Jan 5, 2003
By JONAS KOVER
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
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
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
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.
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