Remembering ‘Sons of Africa’: Historic Civil War Colored Troops Banner on Display

The Loudoun Freedom Center and a private Purcellville collector have collaborated to put a little known piece of Civil War history in Loudoun’s halls of power.

A banner representing the 21st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, constructed after the regiment was mustered out in 1866 to teach Europeans about the war, now stands on display by the entrance to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors meeting room.

The banner was commissioned by the 21st USCT’s chaplain, Erasmus W. Jones. Jones took the banner to Wales with an extensive collection of slavery-related items, including shackles, collars, and abolitionist papers. In 1887, Jones returned to the United States to live out his days in Utica, NY, leaving the banner behind.

The banner is thick with symbolism. It displays a “CT” for Colored Troops, United States heraldry, Grecian columns, a Native American blanket, and patch lettering reading “SONS OF AFRICA,” the name of a British abolitionist group.

From left, Jay Johnson, Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), and Reginald Simms. (Courtesy Dorri O'Brien)
From left, Jay Johnson, Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), and Reginald Simms. (Dorri O’Brien)

The banner comes from the private collection of Jay Johnson, an enthusiastic collector of historic African-American memorabilia. The banner first caught his eye when he moved from Loudoun to California more than 10 years ago.

“Folks there soon found out that I was a very serious collector of black memorabilia and African-American historical items, and somehow somebody got the word and contacted me about this banner,” Johnson said.

[Read Jay Johnson’s account of the history and symbolism of the banner here.]

The banner cost more than he could afford at the time, but he never forgot about it. Three years ago, he moved back to Loudoun and decided it was time to buy the banner. He looked up the banner’s owner, expecting it would be gone, but the owners still had it in an attic.

“It needed some very serious care in terms of its condition, so I sent it to a company in New Orleans, and they cleaned it and restored it as best they could,” Johnson said. Some of the fabric was beyond recovery and had to be replaced, but the banner was restored to its former glory and mounted in a Victorian-style deep-well frame.

And then it sat.

The banner bears the name of the Sons of Africa, a British anti-slavery group. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)
The banner bears the name of the Sons of Africa, a British anti-slavery group. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

Johnson has exhibited parts of his collection in a number of places, but wanted to find a longer-term display for some of the pieces. Enter the Loudoun Freedom Center and its founder Pastor Michelle Thomas.

“He watched the work that we were doing with the preservation of the Belmont Slave Cemetery,” Thomas said. For a time, parts of Johnson’s collection were on display at the Loudoun Freedom Center’s office in Lansdowne, in an exhibit called Looking Blackward. But when that space was bought, the exhibit went back into storage. Some pieces are on display at Oatlands, but for the most part, it’s a collection in search of a home.

But anybody who knows Michelle Thomas knows that she makes things happen. She reached out to county leaders, and, working with the offices of Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), she arranged to have the banner displayed in the County Government Center in Leesburg.

“[The county] seems to be very, very interested with the Civil War, however, it seems to be kind of off balance when it comes to the other side of the Civil War, which includes African-Americans,” Thomas said. “I think this is probably the first time that something like that has been displayed in the government center.”

An ivory disk within a buckle has a notation in Welsh of Atlantic Monthly's sponsorship of the banner's traveling display. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)
An ivory disk within a buckle has a notation in Welsh of Atlantic Monthly’s sponsorship of the banner’s traveling display. (Renss Greene/Loudoun Now)

rgreene@loudounnow.com
@RenssGreene

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