By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
Brian Shellum, author, army veteran and retired government intelligence officer, has spent the last 22 years of his life saluting the 178,975 Black American military volunteers whose dedication helped enact legislation that permitted African-American to enlist as regulars in the nation’s army.
Shellum will be visiting Skagway on Aug. 7 to give a 30-minute talk in partnership with the National Park Service and to sign books at The Skaguay News Depot. His work relishes in the unspoken stories of Civil War heroes who provided an opportunity for their successors to integrate into the armed forces of the United States and to demand equal consideration for housing, honors and other official matters long before the Civil Rights revolution changed the civilian perception on prejudice.
On July 28, 1866, following the congressional act to approve black enlistment, four cavalry and two infantry regiments were reserved for black soldiers. Even under pressure to reduce enlisted strength to less than 30,000 people, black regiments combined and survived a wave of budget and personnel cuts, making up nearly 10 percent of post-Civil War regular army strength for almost a quarter of a century.
Widely regarded as the Buffalo Soldiers, many historians believe the name was coined by Native Americans for the soldiers’ skin and hair color, however, a more detailed explanation is often disputed and rarely agreed upon.
Many Buffalo Soldiers were recently freed southbound slaves, running from the shackles of their slave owners to the security of a government-based job that provided fair food, shelter and equipment, but certainly the arrangements were not perfect. Chaplains or education and religious coordinators were often white leaders assigned to oversee black troops. In addition, officers were seldom other than caucasian males, even after the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Indian Wars.
“Whites in the military might grudgingly accept that blacks could be molded into capable soldiers, but continued to believe that they were dependent on their white officers for leadership. The Buffalo Soldiers could not escape the ubiquitous racism and stereotypes of the time, no matter how well or consistently they performed their duties,” Shellum said in his research paper from the “Routledge Handbook of U.S. Diplomatic and Military History since 1865.”
In spite of social alienation, black soldiers prevailed and did rise to the ranks of officers and captains. Many Buffalo Soldiers were awarded medals of honor for their distinguished service.
In the early 20th century the Philippine-American War began and although most of these military men had not served in the Indian War, the second generation of Buffalo Soldiers left a lasting impression in a lawless town full of gold rush stampeders – Skagway, Alaska.
Skagway became one of the first towns to digest the thought of socially accepting Black Americans as equals and many accounts suggest that there was peace between these civilians and soldiers over the span of three years, Shellum said.
According to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park website, the troops initially camped on Captain Moore’s property and Captain Henry Walter Hovey also rented a few town areas to lend space to army men and their wives and children who were allowed to take the trip together as a family.
From 1899-1902, three years of stationing Company L – a majority-Black American group – in Skagway allowed the Buffalo Soldiers to fulfill their mission as firefighters, disaster relief advocates and law enforcement officers.
Beyond that however, something unexpected became of their community involvement. Accounts of athletic competitions found in early newspapers, such as baseball game rivalries between “The Skagway Team” of railway men and firefighters and Company L, as well as the tug-of-war competition during the Fourth of July, began to blur the color line and give white citizens a chance to interact with Company L. The men of Company L joined local church groups, formed quartets and actively participated in the saloon culture of Skagway.
Following his lecture, Shellum hopes his audience will walk away with deeper knowledge on the origin of Buffalo Soldiers and be able to “put a face to what people were like in Skagway.”
Shellum has written three books on the treatment of black soldiers in the 20th century and the evolution as political tides turned and social barriers were broken. The University of Nebraska Press just released his third book, “African American Officers in Liberia, A Pestiferous Rotation, 1910-1942.”
Currently Shellum spends his free time researching Skagway’s role in the transformation of the Buffalo Soldier generations and how these past actions have effected modern-day decision making.
“I’ve been kind of moving into the early 1900s and what happened to the Buffalo Soldiers and what this next generation of black soldiers are doing and how are they fairing with the onset of Jim Crow and things like that,” Shellum said.
The talk will be hosted by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park at its visitor center theater at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 7. The event is free and open to the public.