Banking on Slavery

MILWAUKEE John W. Jones believes his great-great grandmother would be pleased with his art. Carrie Viola Jones was born a slave. Sometime before the age of 12, she received from her master or overseer a whipping so brutal that the scars on her back lasted all the rest of her 109 years. She died in 1963, when Jones was 13.

”She wouldn’t say much about the scars,” Jones said. ”She showed them to us, but as a kid I felt so far removed from slavery that I don’t remember that it had much of an impact. But the more I do what I’m doing, the more I think about what incredible strength, determination, and courage she had to survive all that and live as long as she did.”

Jones, a 52-year-old South Carolinian, is no longer removed from slavery. He now depicts the strength and scars of his ancestors. In 1996 he was working at a blueprint shop in Charleston when a man came in to order a blowup of some Confederate money. When Jones reviewed the blowup, he saw slaves. Jones, a serious painter in his spare time, was so shocked that he furiously collected more browned and grayed Confederate bills with slaves picking cotton, corn, and tobacco or loading barrels on docks, often cheerfully. Jones brought the scenes to life in full color paintings that are currently on display in Milwaukee – along with the currency – at America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

”It is the undeniable, indisputable truth that the Confederacy was very open about the fact that the backbone of its economy was slave labor,” Jones said. ”You hear all these politicians and people who support flying the Confederate flag saying, `Oh, it’s only states’ rights.’ Oh, it’s states’ rights all right. States’ rights meant it was all right to keep slaves.”

Southern banks and businesses used the image of compliant slaves on currency as propaganda to maintain morale over the immoral institution. In some of his pieces Jones replicates the propaganda with bright, happy faces. In others he subverts the currency’s intent with severe grimaces and piercing eyes. In one piece he changes a white goddess of money with slaves in the background into a mulatto, a clear dig at the exploitation of black labor and the rape of black women by white masters.

The exhibition becomes even more timely as one reads that much of the Confederate currency printed prior to the Civil War was printed not in the South but in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. It is one more example how slavery’s profits were enjoyed by the entire nation.

One bill collected by Jones depicts slaves and George Washington, a slave owner. Another bill collected by Jones was issued by the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad, which today is owned by CSX. CSX was one of the companies named this year in a major slavery reparations lawsuit.

In the book for Jones’s exhibition, Richard Doty, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote, ”The decade or so between the Compromise of 1850 and the outbreak of the 1861 war provides us with one of the clearest links between our money and outside events. People of color were at its center.” The central position of people of color is a reminder why it is no small thing when major politicians such as Attorney General John Ashcroft romanticize the Confederacy.

In a 1998 interview, the former Missouri senator praised Confederate leaders as ”Southern patriots” who needed to be defended by historians ”or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.”

When the South’s sacred fortune of free labor ended in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee and his wife gave voice to a new perverted agenda to keep black people far away from the center of power. Mary Custis Lee, wrote, ”When we get rid of the Freedmen’s Bureau and can take the law in our own hands we may perhaps do better. If they would only take their pets North it would be happy riddance to all.”

John Jones shows why it was not so easy to get rid of the ”pets.” The slaves, in the fullness of his acrylics, are as vibrant with humanity as Carrie Viola Jones must have been to live to 109 despite the scars on her back. ”We were all on that money, and we never got a chance to spend it,” Jones said. ”There’s probably no reasonable way to compensate for that. But when you see these bills, you can’t deny how this country was built. You can say, like the cliche, our history is `right on the money.”’

Originally posted 2002-08-07