• Col. Charles Young / Youngsholm / Buffalo Soldiers in Cuba

    Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers

    National Monument Ohio

Colonel Charles Young

Charles Young in uniform.

"Yours for Race and Country, Charles Young. 22 July, 1919."

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

As a soldier, diplomat, and civil rights leader, Charles Young overcame stifling inequality to become a leading figure in the years after the Civil War when the United States emerged as a world power. His work ethic, academic leadership, and devotion to duty provided a strong base for his achievements in the face of racism and oppression. His long and distinguished career as a commissioned officer in the United States Army made him a popular figure of his time and a role model for generations of new leaders.

Young in civilian clothes and straw hat

Charles Young in civilian clothes and a straw hat

Photo courtesy of National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Early Life

Young was born to enslaved parents in 1864 in May's Lick, Kentucky. That same year his father escaped enslavement and in February 1865 joined the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. In June 1866, two-year-old Charles and his parents moved to Ripley, Ohio, where they sought a new life in this river town and center of abolitionism. He thrived there and at age 17 graduated with academic honors as a member of his integrated high school class of 1881. After high school, Young taught elementary school and continued his education under the tutelage of African-American abolitionist John Parker and by completing coursework at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Cadet Charles Young

Portrait of Cadet Charles Young by J. W. Shannon

Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio

West Point

In 1883, Charles Young's father encouraged him to take the entrance examination to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He entered West Point on June 10, 1884, becoming the ninth African American to attend the Academy and only the third to graduate. As a cadet, he faced racial insults and social isolation from instructors and fellow cadets. Despite these obstructions, Young persevered and his accomplishments became a source of pride among African Americans during his lifetime. Young eventually became the highest ranking African-American officer serving in the Regular Army until his death in 1922.

Charles Young sits on the plains in front of a tent in the winter.

Charles Young and soldiers after setting up bivouac on the frontier.

The Ohio Historical Society

Early Military Career

Because military leaders would not allow an African-American officer to command white troops, the Adjutant General's Office waited three months after Young's West Point graduation in 1889 before assigning the newly-commissioned 2nd Lieutenant to the 9th Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. After a year, marked by isolation and hostility, Young transferred to Fort Duchesne, Utah, where the command and fellow officers proved more welcoming. Here, Young mentored Sergeant Major Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. who later became the first African American to attain the rank of General.

Between 1889 and 1907 Young served in the 9th Cavalry at western posts and rose to the rank of captain. He also taught military science, served as a military attaché, and fought with distinction in the Phillipine-American War, winning the praise of his commanders for his troops' courage and decorum in and out of combat.

Charles Young portrait in uniform

Portrait of Charles Young prior to his departure for Sequoia National Park in 1903

United States Army

First African-American National Park Superintendent

In the summer of 1903, Captain Charles Young became the first African-American national park Superintendent when he and his troops were tasked to manage and maintain Sequoia National Park in northern California. Learn more about Charles Young's short, but profound, tenure as a national park Superintendent by visiting the Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park website.

Major Charles Young on base

Major Charles Young overseeing troops

Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives

Latter Military Career

In 1904 Captain Young became the first Military Attaché to Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. Young joined 23 other officers (the only African American among them) serving in these diplomatic posts in the Theodore Roosevelt administration. He won President Roosevelt's praise through an introduction Roosevelt wrote for his monograph on the people and customs of Hispaniola. Young's experiences in foreign service and as a commander in the Philippines formed the basis of his book The Military Morale of Nations and Races (1911).

From 1912 to 1916, he served as the military attaché to Liberia, helping to train the Liberian Frontier Force, and then served as a squadron commander during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico against Pancho Villa. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Agua Caliente, leading his men to the aid of a cavalry unit that had been ambushed. During the same period, Young won additional promotions, to major in 1912, and to lieutenant colonel in 1916.

Funeral at Arlington Memorial Ampitheater

Funeral of Colonel Charles Young at Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia

Photo courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center

A Long and Distinguished Career

In July 1917, Young was medically retired and promoted to colonel in recognition of his distinguished Army service. Young and his supporters asked for reconsideration of his retirement. To demonstrate his fitness to serve, Young, then 54, made a historic 500-mile horseback ride from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. Afterwards, the Secretary of War gave Young an informal hearing, but did not reverse the decision.

Though medically retired, Young was retained on a list of active duty officers. During World War I, the War Department sent him back to Ohio to help muster and train African-American recruits for the war. Days before the November 1918 armistice, Young was assigned to Camp Grant (Illinois) to train black servicemen. Shortly thereafter, at the request of the State Department, Colonel Young was sent once more to serve as military attaché to Liberia, arriving in Monrovia, February 1920. While on a visit to Nigeria in late 1921 he became gravely ill and died at the British hospital in Lagos on January 8, 1922. Due to British law, Young's body was buried in Lagos, Nigeria for one year before it could be repatriated to the United States for final interment.

On June 1st, 1923, Colonel Charles Young became the fourth soldier honored with a funeral service at Arlington Memorial Amphitheater before burial in Arlington National Cemetery. After the memorial service, he was buried alongside the thousands of other heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. His tomb is located in section 3, grave 1730-B, not very far from where his memorial service took place at the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater.

Young Grave
View of the grave of Colonel Charles Young.  Click the photo to be taken to the official Arlington National Cemetery website.
Arlington National Cemetery

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