Brian G. Shellum is a retired army officer and former historian and intelligence officer with the Department of Defense. He is the author of Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point (Nebraska, 2006) and Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young (Nebraska, 2010). His new book is African American Officers in Liberia (Potomac Books, 2018).
I was invited to do a talk and book signing in Skagway, Alaska last month. Why Alaska? From 1899 to 1902, Company L, Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment was posted to Skagway to control the lawlessness that accompanied the Klondike gold rush. The Twenty-Fourth was one of four Buffalo Soldier regiments that served with the Regular Army in the post-Civil War era. It served with the Twenty-Fifth Infantry and the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry in the frontier army during the closing years of the nineteenth century. I was invited by the National Park Service to speak at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and to sign my latest book at the Skagway Book Depot. Company L’s posting to Skagway was similar in many ways to the officers I discuss in my latest book, African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942. They were black patriots serving their country steadfastly in a far-off land under extremely challenging conditions. And this during Jim Crow for a country that did not want them in uniform or serving under arms.
I decided to write African American Officers in Liberia after completing my second book on the military career of Charles Young (Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment). In that book I covered Young’s two tours in Liberia but was left with the feeling that there was a much larger story to tell. This was one of those untold stories historians look for, waiting to be voiced.
I wondered what it like for an African American officer to fight for the survival of Liberia in the early years of the twentieth century. That was the mission of Benjamin O. Davis, Charles Young, John E. Green, and fourteen other African American officers who trained and commanded the Liberian Frontier Force from 1910 to 1942. These black American officers signed on to a complex and risky enterprise financed by Washington yet directed by the Liberian government. Essentially, the United States extended its newfound imperial reach and dollar diplomacy to cover Liberia, defending an Americo-Liberian colonial government against encroachment and partition by Britain, France, and Germany. At the same time, the Americo-Liberian minority who ruled in Monrovia employed the African American officers to subjugate the indigenous people living in the hinterland.
These African American officers carried out this challenging mission for an American government that did not treat them as equal citizens at home. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the United States was a place where southern blacks were systematically disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws and frequently lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. Even in a U.S. Army offering opportunities to black soldiers and noncommissioned officers, institutional racism persisted and a clear color line prevailed. These former U.S. Army servicemen performed their duties as instruments of imperialism for a country ambivalent about having them serve under arms at home. This paradox intrigued me and compelled me to write this book.
A similar untold story about the service of Company L in Skagway might lead to my next book.