History & Culture
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.
Photo courtesy of National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center
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.
Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio
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.
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.
Photo courtesy 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 Superintendent at Sequoia National Park by clicking here.
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.
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 in neighboring Nigeria he became gravely ill and died at the British hospital in Lagos on January 8, 1922.
In 1923, Colonel Charles Young became the fourth soldier honored with a funeral service at Arlington Memorial Amphitheater before burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Did You Know?
In 1884, Charles Young became the ninth African-American cadet to enter the West Point Military Academy. Young would become only the third African-American to graduate West Point when he left the Academy in 1889. More...