A Look at the Color of Civil War Money

Slavery was so interwoven with America’s social and economic system that sudden abolition would shatter the union. So argued a desperate South in the decades before the Civil War. Never mind the slave owners, the argument ran — abolition was bad for slaves and for the country.

If slavery were at the heart of the American system, what better way to ratify the “peculiar institution” than by stamping it on money, a portable propaganda device to put the South’s message in the very pockets of the anti- slavery North.

Many Southern banks hit on the idea of illustrating their paper notes with engravings of slaves performing their economic roles with vigor, just as Northern banks showed joyful white harvesters. Some blacks so depicted may show a trace of noble weariness, but no chattel betrays job dissatisfaction.

The artist John W. Jones of Columbia, S.C., has rendered the faded monochrome vignettes of the 1850s as large, colorful acrylic canvases, a selection of which are on exhibit through June 29 at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland. The exhibition, called “Confederate Currency: The Color of Money,” is the museum’s latest effort to probe the past as a way to better understand today’s racial concerns.

“Enduring myths, both racial and national, conspire to hold too many African Americans in mental bondage,” museum chief curator Rick Moss says in his description of the exhibition. He says Jones’ images are the opening for a discussion of how we might “understand the damage and repair the rupture.”

Jones’ slaves are bright-eyed and vigorous even in old age. They wear unfaded purples, yellows and reds as they gather billowing baskets of snow- white cotton under pink and lavender skies — embellished details but true to the romantic character of the originals, said Jones, who has researched and documented more than 126 such images.

Certainly the banks didn’t mean the snapping American flags depicted in some engravings to be taken ironically. They intended the Stars and Stripes and the field-worker as coequal images of national legitimacy.

Their juxtaposition of a slave scene and a cameo of George Washington was meant to be taken as seriously as the Fourth of July. And their masters and overseers were determined but caring patriots.

But in translation, the flag is pure R. Crumb, the Father of Our Country is something out of Warhol and the whites are figures from Poe. There’s a hunch- shouldered, vulture-like quality to some of the slave owners and drivers, a haggardness to others. On one bill, the master grins cadaverously as he picnics with his rouge-lipped lady under a tree. They look on admiringly as their slaves scythe wheat in a golden field.

In reality, they were more likely depressed and terrified.

“Acts of sabotage, theft, self-mutilation and armed rebellion by ‘the happy people’ contributed greatly to the sense of malaise experienced by slave owners,” Moss says in his exhibition notes.

The exhibition shows black slavery not as preordained but as an argument. The argument developed quite late in the nation’s development and became a national crisis more for economic than for moral reasons.

Both blacks and white were indentured servants during the colonial era, and black subordination hadn’t been institutionalized by 1820, when the first slave images appeared on Southern bills.

By the mid-1850s, the period of many of the images mirrored in Jones’ art, rapid economic and population growth in the North and increasingly rickety political compromise between the two regions had set the stage for Lincoln. The South, with most of its wealth tied up in slaves, was by then a stifled, cornered civilization.

Without polemics, Jones brings out the hidden character on both sides of the master-slave relationship, at a time when slave reparation has become a controversial issue in America.

“I was trying to show all these things,” Jones said. “I’m not really trying to make that much of a comment. . . . Hopefully, this will start a conversation and start a healing process.”


Originally posted 2002-06-20