Sons of Africa Banner

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, ‘U.S.’, let him get an eagle  on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”
Frederick Douglass

Sons of Africa Banner
21st Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT)
(March 14, 1864 to April 25, 1866)

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African Americans, but official enrollment occurred only after the September 1862, issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Both free African-Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight.

Approximately 180,000 African Americans comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African Americans served in the Union Navy.   

Erasmus W. Jones, chaplain of the 21st USCT, had this banner made and when the unit was mustered out of service in April, 1866, Jones traveled throughout his native Wales displaying an extensive collection of slavery-related items, which included shackles, transport chains and collars, abolitionist broadsides and the “Sons of Africa” banner.  Jones was able to obtain sponsorship of his displays from Atlantic Monthly magazine and various other benefactors.

In 1887, Jones returned to the United States, settling in a Welsh-American community of Utica, New York until his death in 1909. His collection, however, remained in Wales under the care of John Samuel Gibbon and then Richard Thomas Samuels, Jones’ second cousin.

From 1920 to 1925, the Samuels’ family loaned much of Jones’ collection, including this banner, to Horrocks Museum in Manchester, England.  A prominent British textile firm, Horrocks had vast investments in cotton plantations in the Southern U.S. States prior to the Civil War.  After the war, the firm was anxious to erase the memory of its support for the Confederacy and its role in slavery.  In approximately 1926 or 1927, the banner and other pieces of the Jones collection were acquired by Steven Northcote.  Northcote sold the collection to a local merchant named David Fennel, in whose family the banner remained until 2002.

It is not known whether it was Norcotte or Fennel who provided the collection for a second gallery appearance that came in the late 1950’s, when the banner was loaned to the Chipping Barnet Museum in Middlesex, England.   

Beverly Hill took possession of the banner in 2003 and the current owners, Jay and Laurie Johnson purchased the banner in 2012.  The banner underwent a complete restoration and was secured in a frame to preserve its integrity.

The multi-media inner banner is resplendent with iconography relevant to American, Masonic and military traditions, all housed within the appliquéd design of a Greek-columned archway.   Much of the surface of this inner panel is raised, either in appliqué, embroidery, gilded twine, thick fabric or bullion wire. Its center consists of a large circular crest that is enclosed by an embroidered leaf pattern and anchored by prominent patch lettering of “FREEDOM” and “SONS OF AFRICA.”

Inside the crest is a billowing American flag gripped in the talons of an American eagle. The word “UNION” radiates from the back of the eagle, and a thin ribbon unfurls from its mouth with a small, most likely unfinished or slightly altered, notation of “This Flag…Preserve.”

Eagles are a popular theme, with appliquéd images of the Nation’s symbol appearing thrice on each end pillar of the design. The foundation of the pillared structure is edged with thinly plaited fringe and offers the infantry’s genesis in bold raised lettering, “CONSOLIDATED MARCH 1864”; a pair of streamers to the upper left and upper right of the central flag crest proudly wave the troops’ title “21st USCT” and the original regiments from which it was derived: “3rd 4th REG.”

Occupying the space between these streamers is an elaborate appliquéd design of loosely draped flags. The center flag is shaped as a coat of arms, and features a raised metal buckle that was affixed during the time the banner toured in Wales following the end of the war. The buckle’s square base is engraved, “CDYA / 21st REG. / USCT.”

An ivory disk, framed within the upper circular portion of the buckle like a locket photograph, carries a notation in Welsh of Atlantic Monthly magazine’s sponsorship of the traveling display. 

Crowning the overall Greek edifice is a brightly hued triangular facade. There is a Masonic-influenced, intertwined insignia of “CT” (Colored Troops) in the center, and a bullion wire wreath of stars extends away from the banner surface in a semi-circular halo around an “E Pluribus Unum” American eagle seal.

One final element of the inner banner’s elaborate imagery is a Native-American, striped textile that forms the background of the Greek columns. This hemp blanket appears to be an example of the type of battle flag that was presented to some Confederate regiments by the Choctaw Indians. Its incorporation into this Union banner highlights a Civil War ritual practiced by both Southern and Northern regiments. Often, victors of a confrontation would cut small pieces from the losing side’s regimental flags. These captured colors served as a talismanic reminder of triumph and, for a number of the Union’s African-American infantries, a form of tribal hex against the enemy.

While the hemp blanket of the banner provides a small but important background to the design’s Greek columns, the entire pillared hearth has as its backdrop a velour fabric, decorated along its bottom edge with maroon and white tassels. A ribbon trim borders all four sides of this velour backing, with the top and bottom pieces exhibiting a pattern of metallic floral designs that rise from the banner’s surface. Each of the twelve ornaments on the upper ribbon perimeter appears directly below a pelmet loop, and it was these velour loops through which a crossbar would run to support the banner for display.

As for the outer banner, the mauve, floral-stitched silk periphery is framed by a 1″ ribbon perimeter, adorned along its bottom edge with gilded fringe. This silk portion of the overall piece received minor restoration work in 1923-24. 

 At the center of the tapestry’s lower margin is an oval inlaid design that prominently proclaims “FREEDOM TO SLAVES!” below an American eagle seal and a raised triangular “A” insignia.  Flanking these patriotic identifiers are encircled notations of “CG”—presumably an abbreviation for the “Charleston Garrison” that the 21st Regiment so successfully defended. 

Affixed to a top corner of its reverse, the backing tapestry features two prominent 19th Century labels from “The Barnet and District / AUCTIONS SURVEY AND ESTATE OFFICES / WHITE, SON & PILL.” In addition, along the top of the reverse are two corded handles for carrying the banner, as well as a 35″ x 7″ swatch of textured fabric atop which is printed in large black lettering, “True as the Stars that are Shining.”

Organized from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Regiments, South Carolina Colored Infantry, March 14, 1864. Attached to the 3rd Brigade, Vogdes’ Division, District of Florida, Department of the South, to April, 1864. Morris Island, S.C., Northern District, Department of the South, to October, 1864. 1st Separate Brigade, Department of the South, to February, 1865. Garrison of Charleston, S.C., Department of the South, to August 1865. Department of the South, to October, 1865.

SERVICE – Duty at Jacksonville, Florida, until April, 1864. Moved to Hilton Head, S.C., then to Folly Island, S.C., April 18. Duty on Folly Island, Morris Island and Coles Island, operating against Charleston, S.C., June 30 – July 10. Action on James Island, July 2. Occupation of Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, S.C., until August, 1865.  The 21st Regiment garrisoned Charleston and nearby Mount Pleasant through the end of the war,  and at various points in South Carolina and Georgia until October, 1866.  Mustered out, [April 25, 1866].

Source: Dyer’s Compendium, p. 1727

Note:  Organization of 5th Regiment not completed. Was transferred to the 3rd and 4th South Carolina Volunteers.

Jay D. Johnson

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