African-American Military History: Colonel Charles Young


Charles Young as a captain
(Courtesy National Park Service)

[FINAL UPDATE 5:01 PM PST 24 FEB]
Recently, while checking my blog’s statistics, I noticed that someone had searched on Google for “first black lt col in 1916.” This piqued my interest, because I thought 1916 was a bit early for a black man to be promoted to lieutenant colonel. Well, I learned something I didn’t know.

Charles Denton Young (12 March 1864-8 January 1922) was born in Mason County, Kentucky, the son of former slaves. His father, Gabriel, a farmer, joined Company F, 5th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery, at Ripley, Ohio, about a year after Charles was born. Gabriel served a year in the Army and was mustered out in February, 1866, at Vicksburg, Mississippi.

With the family reunited in Ohio, Charles (who, according to census records, appears to have been an only child), attended the white high school in Ripley, graduating with honors at age 16. A year later, he took the competitive examination for entrance into the United States Military Academy at West Point. He received the second highest score and was admitted in 1884. Not much is known about his years at West Point, but in 1889, he became the third black graduate of America’s first military academy. (Henry O. Flipper, Class of 1877, was the first; John Hanks Alexander, Class of 1887, though a native of Arkansas, appointed from Ohio like Young, was the second). He was commissioned a second lieutenant of cavalry and assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the celebrated “Buffalo Soldier” units, in Nebraska. He also served in the 9th Cavalry Regiment in Utah. During the Spanish-American War, Young was promoted to Major and commanded a squadron of the 10th Cavalry in Cuba.

In 1903, Young was posted to California where he became acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park. Something that is not widely known is that in the years before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, Army troops, mostly black, served as America’s park rangers. According to the National Park Service, Young was the first black superintendent of a national park and:

Young’s greatest impact on the park was road construction that helped to improve the underdeveloped park. Due to his work ethic and perseverance, Young and his troops accomplished more that summer than the three military officers who had been assigned the previous three years.

The roads had been so bad that it took Young and his men sixteen days to make it from San Francisco to the interior of the park. Young’s accomplishments opened the wonders of the giant sequoia trees to the public for the first time.

The National Park Service records further state:

The energy and dignity he brought to his national park assignment left a strong imprint. His roads, much improved in later times, are still in use today, having served millions of park visitors for more than eighty years. And the example he set – a determined black man overcoming the prejudices of society – remains an inspiration to anyone who faces life’s challenges head-on.

Young was selected as the first black officer to serve as a military attache (a key intelligence post) in Haiti. His work there attracted the attention of another Spanish-American War veteran, one Theodore Roosevelt. Young later was the Professor of Military Science and Tactics (head of ROTC) at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Young served in the Philippines and in 1912, was selected for his second tour as a military attache, this time in Liberia.

During General Pershing’s 1916 pursuit of Mexican bandits along the border, Young commanded a cavalry squadron. As a result of his skillful leadership. Young was promoted to lieutenant colonel and later full colonel. He was given command of Fort Huachuca, Arizona, as probably the first African-American to command a post with both white and black soldiers.

As the United States approached its entry into World War I, Charles Young was the highest ranking black officer in the U.S. Army. No black officer had ever been assigned to a combat command at such a high rank. And for many years, none would be. In June, 1917, Young was retired over his protests. The Army said his high blood pressure made him unfit for duty. Many observers, however, saw racism behind the decision.

In 1918, Young rode a horse from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to personally petition the Secretary of War for reinstatement. The Army apparently was impressed because Young was reinstated.
But by that time, the war was nearly over. Young was again assigned as the U.S. military attache in Monrovia, Liberia.

While on a mission to Lagos, Nigeria, Young contracted his final illness. He died on January 8, 1922. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

Col. Charles Young was not only a great military leader, but an accomplished linguist as well. He spoke Greek, French, Spanish, and German. He played the violin and guitar, and wrote two plays. Young was married to Ada Barr and they had two children, Charles Noel Young and Marie Young.

After Young’s passing, W.E.B. DuBois wrote of him:

The life of Charles Young was a triumph of tragedy. No one ever knew the truth about the Hell he went through at West Point. He seldom even mentioned it. The pain was too great. Few knew what faced him always in his army life. It was not enough for him to do well-he must always do better; and so much and so conspicuously better, as to disarm the scoundrels that ever trailed him. He lived in the army surrounded by insult and intrigue and yet he set his teeth and kept his soul serene and triumphed.

Young is not as well known to history as other pioneering black military officers. In my 34 years of military service, I heard no mention of him from anyone, black or otherwise. One reference I consulted for this piece described him as “obscure.” In his adopted home state of Ohio, however, his accomplishments are well known. And now, thanks to an anonymous “Googler” that I stumbled across, you and I know them, too.

Epilogue: While serving with the 9th U.S. Cavalry in Utah, then-Lt. Young met an enlisted man who took to heart Young’s guidance and encouragement. That man’s name was Benjamin O. Davis.

Next: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., America’s First Black General

Special thanks to:

Buffalosoldier.net

National Park Service

The Ohio Historical Society

Read more about Colonel Charles Young:

Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point
by Brian G. Shellum
(University of Nebraska Press, 2006)

For Race and Country: The Life and Career of Colonel Charles Young
by David P. Kilroy
(Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003)

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Craig


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