The Color of Money
Artist Re-Creates Scenes of Slavery Found On Confederate Currency
By Linda Meggett Brown
One day, as artist John W. Jones worked at a print shop in South Carolina, he discovered some old Confederate currency that featured a picture of slaves picking cotton. Jones knew that the economy of the Old South depended on slaves who cultivated the land, but the artist says he had no idea the Confederate states circulated money that displayed its most valuable commodities — slaves and cotton.
He began to investigate, searching the Internet, where he found Web sites on the subject. Now, four years after his discovery, Jones has an art exhibit at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. The exhibit, titled
“Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States: Confederate Currency — The Color of Money” features scenes from the old currency.
The 29 oil paintings on display will be there until October, when they will be packed up and shipped as a traveling art show to galleries across the country. When completed, the series will total 55 paintings.
“I didn’t know they had slaves on the currency, that’s what intrigued me about it,” Jones says. “It’s almost like one of the best kept secrets. The stuff on the bills were so small, unless you were looking for it you’d miss it,” Jones says. “I wanted to illuminate what I saw.”
This exhibit goes beyond art into history, Jones says. “It speaks a great deal about how
important African Americans were to the
economic survival of this country. Their
argument that the Civil War wasn’t about
slavery was nothing but lies.
“The money is additional proof of how
significant slave labor was to this country,” he says. “It’s history and education. Young people,
especially Black kids, should certainly see this exhibit to give them an idea of what their ancestors went through.”
For Professor Marvin Dulaney, the exhibit’s historical significance speaks for itself. “This exhibit is about the truth and how important Africans were to the economy,” he says. “This is not a revisionist historian, the Confederate states themselves put those pictures on the currency,” says Dulaney, chairman of the College of Charleston’s history department.
“It’s mind-boggling, the number of cotton fields pictured,” he says. “When I teach American history classes, I talk about the importance of cotton to the economy. This shows how important.
“They admitted it. We’re tied to slavery. It’s the foundation of our society,” he says. This exhibit is appropriate for an institution like the Avery Research Center, which has a mission to collect, preserve and document the history and culture of African Americans in Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country.
“For an African American institution to do an exhibit such as this means we’re breaking tradition,” Dulaney says. “We want to tell the truth.” It would have been difficult to get this exhibit in a traditional gallery, Dulaney says. But, “we told John, ‘We can do it. You complete it and get it up.’
“I’m glad we had this opportunity to display this exhibit,” he says. “John has done a magnificent job interpreting those pictures.”
More than 80 types of bills circulated throughout the Confederate states, including a rare $500 bill. Today, many of these bills are in private and
public collections. They sell for an average $10 to $50 each, but some
currency sells for as much as $500. Most of the bills are pre-Civil War.
More than half the paintings in the series have been sold, 11 of them to Dr. Harold Rhodes of Charleston. “I’ve seen Confederate money, but never paid attention. These paintings evoked so much emotion,” Rhodes says. “My only regret is that I didn’t have the money to buy the entire collection.”
Rhodes also says that it is a shame that issues like the flap over the
Confederate flag get so much attention, while works like Jones’ go
“We have played such a huge role in the development of the country,” Rhodes says. “I have friends who talk about how the Internet revolutionized, and how the automobile changed it all. I don’t think any had the same impact as slave labor, which made America what it is today.”
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