Book Review: African American Officers in Liberia: A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910–1942


by Brian G. Shellum

Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Potomac Books, 2018. Pp. xx, 274. Illus., maps, chron., appends., note, biblio., index. $21.95 paper.. ISBN: 1612349552

African American Military Advisors in Africa

With two books on Charles Young (1864-1922) under his belt, Shellum, a retired Army officer and former DoD historian, gives us a look at the careers of the seventeen African-American officers who saw service as military attachés, advisors, or contract officers in Liberia during the first half of the twentieth century, and their impact on the local military.

Some of these men – notably Col. Young and Benjamin O. Davis (1880-1970) – were Regular Army officers, others were former Volunteer officers who had received commissions during the Spanish- or Philippine-American Wars, and some were NCOs given officer rank in Liberia. Shellum gives us the military backgrounds of these men, some of whom saw extensive service, and the interplay of government policy, military politics, and American racial attitudes that led to their assignment to Liberia. He also gives us some glimpses into how the officers and their families adapted to Liberian society and culture.

Shellum notes that their mission, to strengthen Liberia’s ability to control its territory, given European colonialists’ efforts to detach less-governed regions, was not an easy one. Their efforts to reshape Liberia’s armed forces were confronted by many; deeply embedded corruption, America-Liberian contempt for the indigenous peoples, lack of funding, British, French, and German economic and colonialist ambitions, disease, the interests of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and more, including local politics and a lack of consistent support from Washington.

Much of their work was devoted to creating a properly trained, reliable constabulary, and at times included some combat action against dissident tribes, about which, unfortunately, Shellum offers little detail. Shellum concludes that these officers did manage to build a force that secured Liberia’s frontiers and preserving its unity, but in doing so they also helped perpetuate the essentially colonialist Americo-Liberian domination of the country.

African American Officers in Liberia should be read by anyone interested in the creation of effective armed forces in corrupt “Third World” countries, and for the light it throws on America’s quasi-official protectorate in Liberia as well as on the careers of black officers in the segregated army, two of whom, Young and Davis, were outstanding soldiers.


Note: African American Officers in Liberia is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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