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Charles Young was an American soldier and civil rights pioneer. He was born to formerly enslaved parents in Kentucky in 1864 and attended high school in Ripley, OH, outside Cincinnati. Young graduated from West Point in 1889, becoming the third African American to do so. He served in the U.S. Army for over 30 years, and he held a variety of positions, including military attaché to Liberia, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and commander of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He was a strong advocate for racial equality and a role model for African Americans across the country.

 

Early Life

Colonel Charles Young Youth

Charles Young was born under the shadow of slavery in Mayslick, Kentucky, on March 12, 1864. Just two years after the end of the Civil War, a baby boy named Charles Young entered a world wrought with adversity as the son of once-enslaved parents, Gabriel & Arminta Young.

Young’s education journey began in Ripley, Ohio, where he attended high school. His mother, who was educated while enslaved, supplemented his education. He graduated from the integrated high school in 1881 at the top of his class.

He pursued higher learning at Albany Normal School in New York, attending what would later be known as Albany State University from 1882 to 1884.

In 1884 Young was accepted into the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point. He encountered prejudice and injustice from instructors and other cadets daily. After his first year, he considered quitting, but he stayed committed to his learning and persevered through his challenges with encouragement from his father. When giving advice, later in life, to a potential African American cadet, Young said they could expect “a dog’s life there.”

His graduation in 1889 marked a significant milestone, as he became the third African American to achieve this feat. Henry Ossian Flipper and John Hanks Alexander were the first and second African Americans to graduate from West Point, respectively. They both earned their commissions, but their careers in the Army were unfortunately cut short.

 

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Military Career

Colonel Charles Young Philippines

The Army assigned Young as a cavalry leader of the Buffalo Soldiers, stationed in Nebraska and Utah in the early 1890s. He quickly became known as an officer who commanded respect from his troops and superiors.

In the fall of 1894, Charles Young received a detached service assignment that sent him to Wilberforce University near Dayton, Ohio. Lieutenant Charles Young became a distinguished professor of military science and tactics and met fellow professors W.E.B. DuBois and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who would become close lifelong friends. Young also helped jumpstart the university’s marching band, being a talented pianist, guitarist, and violinist. Young would frequently return to Wilberforce between his duty stations & assignments to visit and purchase properties that he would later call home.

He served as the post commander at various posts, proceeding Wilberforce. Tasked with training troops who would serve in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.

Young madeColonel Charles Young Parks history again in 1903, reaching the rank of captain and becoming the first black U.S. National Park Superintendent. His time managing and maintaining Sequoia National Park in northern California was brief. Still, in his role, he shattered the false notion that African Americans could not manage positions of responsibility and authority.

 

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At the dawn of the 20th century, the U.S. government appointed Young as the nation’s first black military attaché stationed in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Liberia. This tenure in Africa allowed him to utilize his multi-lingual talents and further his impressive career. While he improved relations between Liberia and the United States at the onset of World War I (WWI), they promoted him to major.

After Young finished his first tour as a military attaché in 1915, they promoted him to lieutenant colonel and assigned him to the Tenth Cavalry, which he joined at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

Serving as a squadron commander, in 1916, during the Punitive Expedition in Mexico against Pancho Villa, Young distinguished himself at the Battle of Agua Caliente, recorded as the first time machine guns were used in a coordinated assault, and at Hacienda Santa Cruz de la Villegas riding to the support of the 13th U.S. Cavalry, an act credited by many historians as preventing a larger war between the United States and Mexico.

After returning from Mexico, Young assumed WWI in Europe would be his next deployment. Young hoped to train and lead a regiment or brigade of all-Black troops in the fight. He anticipated a reassignment to Wilberforce University to continue his role as a professor if they did not select him to go to Europe.

 

 

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Later Life

The U.S. Army ordered Young to retire in 1917, citing medical reasons. However, the order was more due to the unwillingness of white officers to serve under him, a common theme of Young’s time in the military. At the time, he was the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. Army and one of only three black commissioned officers.

Upon his retirement, Young was promoted, becoming the first African American to reach the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army, and placed on the unlimited retired list allowing him to continue to serve in some capacity during the war.

Young HorsebackIn the summer of 1918, Young tried to prove his fitness to serve in France during WWI by making a historic 500-mile “Protest Ride” on his horse, Blacksmith, from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. Young extended the 90-mile fitness ride they cavalry officers where required to complete over a three-day period.

The Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, gave Young an informal hearing in which they spoke on many topics. When asked if he would prefer a combatant or noncombatant assignment, he enthusiastically answered, “Combatant!”

Young was denied permission to command troops in Europe but returned to active duty. Some historians described the decision a result of prejudice by senior leaders in the military and the Presidency.

After training black recruits during the war, Young returned to his position as a professor at Wilberforce University. In 1919, he served as a military attaché in Liberia but fell ill and passed away at 58 in Nigeria. His family brought his exhumed body to Arlington National Cemetery in 1923.

 

Legacy

Charles Young married Ada Barr in 1903 and had two children, Charles Noel and Marie.

Young, an NAACP member, received the 1916 Springarn Medal, an annual honor for exceptional African Americans. His legacy endures as the sole military recipient since its 1915 inception.

Theodore Roosevelt said of Young, “By sheer force of character…overcame prejudices which would have discouraged many a lesser man…He approached life with the single purpose of seeing what he could do for this nation….[What] he has done will remain with us in the country as a constant inspiration and guide of the generations to come.”

Young LandmarkIn 2013, President Barack Obama established the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, which includes the Colonel Charles Young Museum and the Colonel Charles Young House.

California lawmakers established the Colonel Charles Young Memorial Highway in August 2018 near Sequoia National Park’s entrance, honoring his improvements.

In February 2020, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear posthumously promoted Young to brigadier general in the Kentucky National Guard. He later sent a letter to President Joe Biden requesting that the federal government recognize Young’s promotion. In November 2021, Under Secretary of Defense Gilbert Cisnero Jr. approved the honorary promotion.

Today, Brigadier General Charles Young’s legacy remains a shining beacon for those striving for equality and progress.

 

The Voice of Black Cincinnati is a media company designed to educate, recognize, and create opportunities for African Americans. Want to find local news, events, job postings, scholarships, and a database of local Black-owned businesses? Visit our homepage, explore other articles, subscribe to our newsletter, like our Facebook page, join our Facebook group, and text VOBC to 513-270-3880.

 

Photos from kcaah.org, ohiohistory.org, colonelcharlesyoungfoundation.org, and nps.gov.

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