A New Light on an Old Darkness

A New Light on an Old Darkness


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes


Home Injecting the practice of slavery with the colors of life is one way of looking at the art of John W. Jones. Jones has taken vignettes of slavery, found on paper money issued by the Confederate States of America and many Southern states, and translated them into color-filled images on canvas. Jones is an artist and illustrator in Columbia, S.C.  


Confederate Money: The Art of John W. Jones


A new light on an old darkness: Artist recreates CSA note vignettes of slavery

By Michele Orzano


Injecting the practice of slavery with the colors of life is one way of looking at the art of John W. Jones. Jones has taken vignettes of slavery, found on paper money issued by the Confederate States of America and many Southern states, and translated them into color-filled images on canvas. Jones is an artist and illustrator in Columbia, S.C. An exhibit of 30 of his paintings dealing with slavery as a part of the African-American experience are on display at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, S.C., through Oct. 19.

Jones said the reaction since the exhibit opened Feb. 15 has been more than he imagined it would ever be. He’s gotten calls from the New York Times, Home Box Office network and People magazine about his work.

His acrylic paintings have generated a deep response among the viewers, which surprises him, he said.

 “I never dreamed that it would have this type of reaction,” Jones said. He added, “It’s important to understand why the Confederacy put cotton and slavery on their notes.”

Jones was born in South Carolina in 1950 and lived through many of the events he paints but he never encountered this aspect of American life until about four years ago. 

Jones was working for a blueprint shop in Charleston when a collector asked to have a Confederate bank note enlarged on one of the firm’s copiers. 

Once the note was enlarged, Jones said he was fascinated to see the scene before him – a black field hand picking cotton.

That stirred his creative side and he began to do more research into an area he never knew existed. 

Jones said he looked on the Internet for more information about Confederate notes and saw the Louisiana State University’s online exhibit, “Beyond Face Value: Depictions of Slavery in Confederate Currency,” featuring currency depicting the lives of slaves and ex-slaves before, during and after the Civil War. The online exhibit is found at:

Jones started looking for the notes in flea markets and anywhere else he could find them. He said he thought paintings based on the notes would be a good addition to his ongoing series on the African-American experience from the slave trades through the Civil War and onward to the present day.

He said he can remember drawing when he was 6 years old and becoming more involved with his art while in high school, where his talent was called on to design bulletin boards and paint the backdrops for school theatrical productions.

After high school, he spent 8 years in the U.S. Army including service in Vietnam and Korea.

 For five of those years he served as an illustrator for Army training materials. In 1976, as part of the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, Jones was selected to paint a wall of the American compound in Seoul, South Korea, measuring 25 feet tall and 150 feet long and giving visitors a black-and-white walk through American history.

“I almost didn’t finish in time for the Bicentennial – it was a big wall,” Jones said, wondering aloud if the artwork is still to be found there.


Following his Army service Jones worked for a graphics firm in Washington, D.C., for about a year and then started working as a freelance artist/illustrator for clients such as IBM, Westinghouse, NASA, Time-Life Books and the U.S. Postal Service.

After several years, he moved back to South Carolina. About five years ago, he started painting full time and selling his art to the public through several galleries. He said he “paints … things from my past, old hometown scenes, churches, Buffalo Soldiers and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.” The Buffalo Soldiers were black troops stationed in the West after the Civil War during the Indian Wars period, while the 54th Massachusetts was one of the first black regiments to experience battle during the Civil War. 

The Massachusetts regiment was the subject of the movie “Glory” and is depicted in a famous sculpture by coin designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Jones said when he approached Dr. W. Marvin Delaney, director of the Avery Center, about an exhibit of paintings about slavery on paper money, he said his main challenge was “how was I going to make picking cotton exciting.” However, the topic has excited visitors to the exhibit, which shows some a side of history they’d never seen before.

Jones uses the words “astonished” and “amazed” to describe the comments made by viewers.

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture is located at 125 Bull St., College of Charleston, Charleston, S.C. The gallery is open between noon and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Group tours must be scheduled by calling (843) 953-7609.

There is no admission charge to view the exhibit.

Coin World Magazine. For more information about Jones’ paintings, prints and note cards, contact Gallery Chuma, 43 John St., Charleston, SC 29403 or call the gallery toll free at (888) 249-5286.

John W. Jones–born May 11, 1950 in Columbia, S.C. Jones–has been a freelance artist and illustrator for more than 20 years. His former clients include Time Life Books, IBM, Westinghouse, Rubbermaid, NASA, Gadded Space and Flight Center, and the U.S. Postal Service. Jones explores life through art. This multi-talented artist uses oils, acrylics and watercolors for his painting. Striving for detail in light and reflection, he meticulously draws each painting first, then layers it with color, resulting in very realistic interpretations of everyday life and landscapes, as well as historical insights into our past.

Jones, who graduated from high school in 1968 and self-taught, has been drawing since early childhood. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, Jones served in the Vietnam War, where he also took illustration classes in military School.

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 7 July 2008 




Home    Snap Shots of the Old South

Related files:    Confederate Money: The Art of John W. Jones  Abbe Raynal on Black Leadership  Depictions of Slavery    Review of Exhibition   Snapshots of the Old South

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