Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency
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Sun-Sentinel.com

 

Historical currency prompts exhibit

By Toni Marshall
Staff Writer
Posted February 6 2004

John W. Jones was working in a South Carolina blueprint shop when a man walked in and asked him to reproduce and enlarge an Old South $10 bill to use as pinball machine art.

What he saw on the money shocked him -- slaves picking cotton.

"I was astonished at first. Then, I became curious and asked why slaves were on Confederate money," Jones said. "I had never seen it in history books, not in the library."

The magnification -- almost 3 feet wide and 21/2 feet tall -- revealed the weathered engraving of a slave family picking cotton, an image that could have easily gone unnoticed in the corner of the sepia note.

For Jones, a self-taught artist and descendant of African slaves, the image overshadowed its shared space with a dignitary, billowing tall ships and other signs of Southern prosperity.

It spurred him to re-create the obscure images as large, full-color paintings.

More than 60 of these paintings now make up his traveling collection, Confederate Currency: The Color of Money, Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern State Currency on display for Black History Month at the Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale.

The free exhibit kicks off with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday on the library's sixth floor, with the display running throughout the month. The display will then head to St. Louis.

Over the years, his 100-plus paintings have fueled a national tour and added to a debate about reparations and the history of racism and race relations in this country. Florida currency makes up part of the exhibit.

"For me, these pictures attest to the African-American contribution to the economy of the South," said Rose Thevenin, associate professor of history at Florida Memorial College.

"It highlights looking beyond just reparations," she said. "There is a struggle for survival in those bills."

The images portray slaves as complicit, if not happy, to perform enforced toil.

"It's not only telling you that the labor is there," Thevenin said, "but how are they surviving and the conditions in which they lived."

Jones, 53, who used to draw in dirt as a little boy, resides in Columbia, S.C. After he saw the first note, he searched the Internet, attended flea markets and snooped in trading shops to find southern currencies and Confederate money.



The first note with the image of an African-American appeared in 1820. There were not any more until 1850, when the national debate on slavery heated up, Jones said.

Jones' paintings illuminate the South's attempt to carefully remake the image of slavery -- replacing the negative images of human bondage with what historians call "happy slaves" and selling the institution on a positive note.

The appearance of slaves on some of the bills is being used in the debate on reparations from private companies that benefited from enforced African-American labor, according Jones' book on the exhibit.

"It provides a kind of visual documentation of what I would call the pervasiveness of the institution of slavery," said Curtis Franks, director of Museum Education and Exhibits at the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.

Many of the engravings were created by printers in cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and then sent to the South.

In Florida, for example, an 1863 Tallahassee dollar shows a slave easily carrying an overflowing sack of cotton, while other slaves stuffed sacks in the background.

"When I first saw it in the catalog, my mouth gaped open," said Tanya Simmons-Oprah, outreach services director for the Broward County Library.

"I think it radiates the fact that America was involved in a horrendous trade: the trade of human beings for the benefit of its wealth," she said.

Simmons-Oprah expects for it to be one of the most popular exhibits to be held at the library.

"People who collect money knew about this a long time ago," Jones said. "Nobody was going to publicize it the way it has been now."

Toni Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sun-sentinel.com or 954-572-2004.

 

Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel