In this sympathetic biography, Brian Shellum examines the heretofore understudied life of Colonel Charles Young, a U.S. military officer who achieved the highest rank of any commissioned African American soldier prior to 1920. A West Point graduate originally from Kentucky, Young rose steadily through the ranks of the regular army, serving principally with the Tenth Cavalry, a black unit colloquially known as "Buffalo Soldiers." Through three decades of military service, Young saw action during the Philippine insurrection, served as military attaché in Haiti and Liberia, supervised and patrolled national parks and Indian reservations, and performed garrison duty in [End Page 296] the American West. The varied nature of Young's assignments had much to do with both his own ambitions and the aversion of the Department of War to deploying him in circumstances in which he might have command over white soldiers. This official adherence to the color line is an enduring theme of Shellum's book that presented both unique opportunities and stark limitations for Young's otherwise distinguished career of military service.
Black commissioned officers were quite a rare presence in the U.S. armed forces of the early twentieth century. Those who were fortunate enough to achieve such positions were models of tenacity in the face of discouraging odds. Young was only the third black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a pedigree that placed him in what his friend, W. E. B. Du Bois, would deem the "Talented Tenth." Insofar as the U.S. Army was steeped in the racial attitudes of the day, Young was shuffled between deployments that would not result in his commanding white troops. Shellum persuasively demonstrates how the War Department played a racially duplicitous game with Young's career over a period of three decades, recognizing his competence with promotions and accolades while containing his talents and potential in the few spheres it considered appropriate "for a black officer in a white man's army" (p. 7). For his part, Young played his role in this game with little public complaint, reserving expressions of disappointment for private correspondence with friends and acquaintances such as Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and his wife, Ada Young.
Young's military life was one of both numerous honors and incessant insults, ranging from appointments to professorships and plum diplomatic posts to War Department accommodation of white junior officers who arrogantly protested the prospect of serving under an African American superior. The tension that accompanied his precarious place in the U.S. Army was perhaps best illustrated by his remittances to the antilynching fund of the NAACP in 1916, a year in which he and his black troopers had been instrumental in the pursuit of Pancho Villa's forces in northern Mexico on behalf of [End Page 297] the American government. In Shellum's view, Young was not one to wear his politics on his sleeve, even as African American claims to full citizenship were questioned at every turn. Nonetheless, the author does imply that Young was partial to the activism of Du Bois and a bit cooler on Booker Washington's seeming rapprochement with the Jim Crow normalcy of the day. In any event, Young's correspondence reveals a patient, conscientious man, one accustomed to abiding by the rules and expecting as much of others. Those who served under Young would have known him best, but unfortunately their voices are few in this volume, undoubtedly due to a scarcity of extant sources.
Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment is well researched, and the prose is clear, albeit plodding in places. Many readers will appreciate Shellum's respect and admiration of his subject, while others will likely be concerned by his ostensible reluctance to take Young to task for his role in the American imperial project. On this score, Shellum provides no real critique of Young's spying for the War Department during his diplomatic ventures in Haiti and Liberia, even...