Historical currency prompts exhibit
By Toni Marshall
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
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
"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
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' 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
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
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
"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 email@example.com or 954-572-2004.
Copyright © 2004,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel