The Color of Money

Columbia, S.C. — The Old South was never his favorite topic. As a commercial artist descended from slaves, John W. Jones was more interested in depicting the black history that began with Emancipation. Then he saw a tiny image that opened his eyes.

A customer at the blueprint shop where Jones was working wanted a blow-up of an 1853 bank note from Charleston. When he magnified it, Jones was confronted with a vignette showing slaves picking cotton.

Intrigued, he got out his acrylic paints and canvas and rendered the faded scene in color. “I wanted to bring them back to life,” he says.

Seven years later, working with other bills and other vignettes, Jones is still at it.

“The Color of Money,” an exhibition of 45 of his paintings and the currency that inspired them, opens Wednesday at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in downtown Atlanta. The show is part of the National Park Service’s effort to broaden the site’s scope beyond the civil rights movement, and will occupy the same space where a display of lynching photography drew record attendance last year.

As Jones sees it, the slavery scenes, which were common on antebellum bills, refute the flaggers and heritage groups that want to downplay the importance of human bondage in causing the Civil War. If slavery wasn’t central to the Confederacy, he argues, why was it pictured on Southern money?

“You put what matters to you on your money,” he says. “I didn’t put it there. They did.”

To underscore the point, the paintings will be displayed with excerpts from the articles of secession passed by several state legislatures. In Georgia, for instance, lawmakers mentioned slavery more than 30 times in declaring why the state was leaving the Union. The exhibition will also include slavery artifacts never pictured on Southern money, like whips.

Unique legal tender

Richard G. Doty, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s numismatic collection, believes the slave scenes may be unique. As far as he knows, they’re the only legal tender ever issued in the United States that portrays African-Americans.

Until the Civil War and the standardization of national currency, most paper money in the young republic was printed by states and banks. Compared to today’s greenbacks, with their staid portraits of dead presidents and stone temples of government, the earlier money was colorful and varied. In addition to politicians, antebellum currency carried views of everyday life, of agriculture, industry, commerce and transportation. Doty estimates that 20 percent of the thousands of Southern bills he has examined show slaves at work — raising cotton, cutting sugar cane, plowing fields, unloading ships, butchering a hog, even taking a nap.

Collectors have known about the engravings for years.

“They were hidden in plain view,” says Jones, who has made it his job to expose them.

Hidden in plain sight

At 53, Jones is a good-humored Army veteran who served in Vietnam and has worked for years as an illustrator and cartographer. In his studio, a converted tool shed behind his house in suburban Columbia, he sits at a drafting table in a battered easy chair, an air conditioner rattling away in the window, and uses a magnifying glass to scrutinize reproductions of currency printed more than a century and a half ago. Sometimes he drives into the countryside, stops beside a cotton field and wanders among the rows trying to imagine what it was like for his ancestors.

After he learned about the slave imagery in 1996, Jones started visiting flea markets, antique shops and eventually the Internet looking for the money of the Old South. He has found 126 different scenes reused in hundreds of bank notes, many of which he has bought for $20 to $250 apiece. He has painted 87 of them so far on canvases up to 24-by-36 inches. He also self-published a book on the exhibition, which has traveled to California, New York, Wisconsin, Louisiana and South Carolina.

“More white people have bought the book than black people,” Jones says. The thought has crossed his mind that a few buyers may regard pictures of contented cotton-pickers with nostalgia.

A propaganda tool

The earliest scene he knows of — showing slaves with baskets of the fluffy white stuff — appeared in 1820 on a $5 bill from the Farmers & Merchants Bank of Augusta.

African-Americans didn’t turn up on currency again until the 1850s, when sectional tensions over slavery and its extension into Western territories started to boil over. Enshrining slavery on their folding money was just one of many ways Southerners rallied to defend their “peculiar institution.”

“Money was a propaganda tool that reflected the views of the ruling elite. That’s why you see only happy slaves on those bills,” says Jules d’Hemecourt, a mass communications professor at Louisiana State University, who curated an show on antebellum money there.

When Southern banks starting requesting slave scenes, the Northern engravers who made the plates at first recycled images of white people. A $3 bill issued by the Citizens Bank of Washington shows a white farmer toting a basket of corn. On a $50 note across the Potomac in Virginia, the same farmer has darkened skin.

In his painting “Slave Picking Corn,” Jones gave the fellow a big grin and a flashy purple shirt with a striped collar. “A lot of people think he’s a pimp,” the artist laughs.

Later in the 1850s, engravers started making scenes specifically for the Southern market. One of the most common shows a smiling slave mother holding a baby who seems delighted to be clutching part of a tobacco plant.

“That image is loaded,” says the Smithsonian’s Doty. “A mother and child happy about the thing that enslaves them — I think that’s kind of obscene.”

For the most part, Jones tried to render the images as they appear. But in many cases, the figures are so small and indistinct that he had them blown up 400 and 500 percent at Kinko’s and still had to use his imagination to fill in the details. He had to dress them, color them, give them faces (which explains why many of his slaves resemble friends and relatives).

A little tweaking

Sometimes Jones adds an editorial spin.

In “Female Slave,” based on a $3 bill from North Carolina, he started with a neutral scene of an overseer watching a slave woman feed pigs. He added a leer to the man’s face, a sidelong glance to the woman’s, and created a plantation mini-drama about miscegenation.

In “Slave Profits,” based on a popular allegory showing a pale-faced goddess with a cotton plant and bags of gold, Jones upended the symbolism by remaking her as an attractive bronze-skinned woman in robes of regal purple — Lena Horne among the field hands.

Jones shares at least one sentiment with the slaveholding culture that made the money: It pays to make people look happy.

“I tried to keep them smiling because most people don’t like grim figures in their house,” he says. “I do want to sell these things.”

With his paintings fetching as much as $7,000, Jones now finds himself in a joyfully ironic position.

“Who would have thought,” he says, “that I might be able to retire on Confederate money?”

Originally posted 2003-05-17