Slavery’s Currency Invalidated

Art based on Confederate money torpedoes myths that all was well.

The phrase “it’s right on the money” tells the whole story.

S.C. artist John Jones has brought scenes of Southern slavery to the American public through an unusual stimulus: 150-year-old Confederate bills.

Through a vibrant palette of acrylics, Jones’ paintings portray slaves during the Civil War period. But these aren’t pictures pulled from Jones’ imagination. They are accurate reproductions of images found on the paper money circulated by Southern banks.

Jones first became intrigued with Confederate money while working as a graphic artist at a Charleston blueprint company in 1996. “After enlarging a Confederate bank note for a customer,” Jones said, “I found myself looking at a picture of slaves picking cotton.”

From that initial encounter, Jones went on a journey to discover how the images of slaves were used on Confederate states money. He searched the Internet and hunted through flea markets and hobby shops. His findings shocked him.

Engravings of slaves were everywhere: hoeing the fields, picking cotton, carrying the cotton, bringing cotton bales to the market, to the steamboat and to the train. Since states could charter banks, there were bank notes showing slaves cooking for their white masters in South Carolina, picking sugar cane in Tennessee and Alabama, and harvesting turpentine in Georgia.

Most of the men, women and children were smiling, clean, healthy and well-fed. Not exactly a true picture of Southern blacks during the Civil War.

What was the point?

“Cotton and slaves were the foundations on which the economy of the South was built,” Jones said. “They were important properties proudly displayed on its paper money.”

Southern states wanted slavery to be seen in a positive light. Depicting black people happily working for their masters was good for Southern morale as well as a way to drum up support in the North.

Jones has painted 80 paintings from the 122 bills which he has collected. The traveling exhibit, “Confederate Currency: The Color of Money” will be on display at Benedict College in Columbia through Dec. 18. It includes 70 paintings that correspond to 72 framed currencies.

The juxtaposition of the bright paintings alongside the dull paper money provokes the viewer. Jones’ colorful images are no accident.

“I tried to use the vibrant colors to empower the slaves and also to tell a story of confrontation, because the paintings quietly subvert the original intent of the engravers,” Jones said. He views himself as a “visual storyteller”; both art and stories are an integral part of his personal history. His paternal great-grandmother, Charlotte Jones, died in 1967 at age 109, when Jones was a young teenager. She told Jones stories of what it was like to be a slave, and he saw the scars across her back from being whipped.

Jones, who has been painting since he was 6, took illustration courses in military school but is primarily self-taught. Drafted into the Army in 1970, Jones served in the Vietnam War and painted a 25-foot-long mural in Korea.

His work is on display in the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, Charleston’s city hall, and the College of Charleston. Paintings that sell for between $1,500 and $3,000 (bank note included) are available through the Rita Smith Gallery in Columbia and Gallery Chuma in Charleston.

Juliette Harris, editor of International Review of African American Art, commented that Jones is part of the “leading edge of African American artists who are re-engaging the past in a way that is political but has never before been seen.”

While Jones’ paintings demonstrate some nostalgia for the pastoral life of the old South, “he is also critiquing the deceptive romanticism of the engravers,” she said.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, then Mr. Jones’ paintings can each be read like a history book.

Originally posted 2002-12-01