Confederate money talks, activists say

Slave images used to rebut argument on war’s cause

ATLANTA — In the 138 years since the Civil War ended, a question has lingered over the South as hauntingly as the memories of the soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefield: How important was slavery to the Confederacy?

Historians have debated the question, yet the answer remains elusive. And in a place where the past often clashes with the present, the issue forms a dividing line that pits blacks against whites and lovers of the Old Confederacy against those who loathe it.

An exhibit that opened last week at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site seeks to offer insight into the complex relationship between the Old South and its slaves. The display of paintings and Confederate currency reveals a little-known fact in America: that slaves were routinely depicted on paper money in the South from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s.

If nothing more, South Carolina artist John Jones said, his collection of acrylic paintings on canvas discredits a long-standing Southern assertion that the war was solely an issue of states’ rights and proves that it was as much or more about holding on to an inhumane institution that fueled the region’s economy.

“The history of a country, its values and economy are often reflected in its money. This shows what was going on during the Civil War and antebellum periods, and what it says about the importance of slavery is right on the money,” Jones said. “The engravings are a visual smoking gun that document how much free slave labor enriched America.”

According to historians, slaves began showing up on Southern money as early as 1820, and the images proliferated in the 1850s as the debate over slavery heated up in America. Prior to the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913, institutions printed their own money freely, and in the South, blacks were one of the primary subjects. They are shown on bank notes, currency and bonds issued by banks, hotels and railroads. They are shown planting, picking and hauling cotton and tending cattle.

The slaves depicted on the currency are often shown with smiling faces, seemingly enjoying duties of forced labor. According to historians, that is because the bills were largely distributed as propaganda, an effort to show Northerners and Southerners alike that slavery was not as bad as abolitionists had portrayed it.

“In the early to mid-1850s, there was an attempt to portray slaves as they worked. It was all matter-of-factly; they happened to be black slaves working on the plantation,” said Richard Doty, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s numismatic collection. “In the mid-1850s, there was a growing and endless controversy in America over slavery, beginning with the publication of `Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ [in 1852]. People were going into Congress armed to the teeth intending duels, and images of blacks changed on the notes.

“Instead of a matter-of-factly guy cutting cane, he was cutting cane and liking it. The images of grinning slaves on money bolstered the opinion down South that slavery was a good thing, and they hoped that Northerners would look at it and figure the slaves were better off than they had thought,” Doty said.

Unresolved issues

The wounds of the Civil War have not completely healed in America. Heated disagreements over affirmative action, the Confederate battle flag and reparations for descendants of slaves have become prolific and are, some scholars say, in part the aftermath of unresolved issues.

“Hardly a day goes by when the question of the Confederacy does not come up, that its legacy does not impact some dimension of everyday life and public policy,” said John Coski, a historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. “The Civil War was fought over issues people felt strongly about, issues about states’ rights, the economy, slavery and African-American participation in American life.

Cities throughout the country are beginning to look seriously at the economics of slavery and how individuals and corporations benefited financially from the practice. Several cities have passed resolutions to study reparations.

Last year, Chicago became the first major city to pass an ordinance requiring all businesses vying for city contracts to search their records and disclose whether they profited from slavery. Three years ago, California passed legislation requiring insurers doing business with the state to disclose similar records.

During the past year, several lawsuits have been filed against railroads, tobacco corporations, textile-makers and insurers, seeking to hold them financially accountable for the profits made from slaves.

Some African-American historians said that exhibits such as “Confederate Currency: The Color of Money,” bolster the case for reparations and affirmative action.

“This tells us that in spite of what neo-Confederates are saying today that the war was not about slavery, it was essential and integral to the Southern economy and that indeed was what they were fighting about,” said Marvin Dulaney, director of the Avery Research Center for African American History at the College of Charleston.

`We deserve reparations’

“History books don’t take account of how important African-Americans were in building this country. But the money does. This is visual representation of what we have done for America and a confirmation that we deserve reparations.”

Historian Jules d’Hemecourt agrees that slavery was important to the economy, but he said it was not the only thing.

“We know the economic impact of slavery was profound because the area of the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans had more millionaires than anywhere else. Cotton was king and slaves helped that to happen,” said d’Hemecourt, a mass communications professor at Louisiana State University who was the curator of an exhibit there on antebellum money.

“But it was part of a mosaic. Less than 10 percent of the money circulated in the South before the war, during the war and during Reconstruction had slaves on it,” he said.

Though the money speaks of how slavery helped drive the economy, Coski said, other pictures appeared more frequently on the 72 known pieces of Confederate currency–steamships, railroads, classical figures and political leaders among them.

“After the war, Southerners became very defensive about slavery, and lot of people have tried to run away from the importance of slavery to the South. But white Southerners of the Confederate generation knew how important slavery was,” Coski said. “We have to recognize the complexity of Civil War history.”

Originally posted 2003-05-27