Charles Young – the first African-American colonel

Charles Young (March 12, 1864 – January 8, 1922) was an American soldier. He was the third African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy, the first black U.S. national park superintendent, first black military attaché, first black man to achieve the rank of colonel in the United States Army, and highest-ranking black officer in the regular army until his death in 1922.

Charles Young was born in 1864 into slavery to Gabriel Young and Arminta Bruen in Mays Lick, Kentucky, a small village near Maysville. However, his father escaped from slavery early in 1865, crossing the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, and enlisting in the Fifth Regiment of Colored Artillery (Heavy) near the end of the American Civil War. His service earned Gabriel and his wife their freedom, which was guaranteed by the 13th Amendment after the war. Arminta was already literate, which suggests she may have worked as a house slave before her freedom. The Young family settled in Ripley when Gabriel was discharged in 1866, deciding that opportunities there in Ohio were probably better there than in postwar Kentucky. Gabriel Young received a bonus by continuing to serve in the Army after the war, and he had enough to buy land and build a house.

Charles Young attended the all-white high school in Ripley, the only one there who was African-American. He graduated in 1880 at the top of his class. He then taught for several years in the new black high school opened in Ripley.

In 1883, Young took the competitive examination for appointment as a cadet at United States Military Academy at West Point. He had the second highest score in his district, but the top candidate decided not to go and Young reported to West Point in 1884. There was then one other black cadet, John Hanks Alexander, who had entered in 1883 and graduated in 1887. Young and Alexander shared a room for three years at West Point. Although regularly discriminated against, Young did make several lifelong friends among his later classmates, but none among his initial class. He had to repeat his first year when he failed mathematics. He later failed an engineering class, but he passed it the second time when he was tutored during the summer by George Washington Goethals, the Army engineer who later directed construction of the Panama Canal and who as an assistant professor took an interest in Young. (It was not unusual for cadets to need tutoring in some subjects. Young’s strength was in languages, and he learned to speak several.)

As one of the very first African-Americans to attend and graduate from West Point, Charles Young faced challenges far beyond his white peers. He experienced extreme racial discrimination from classmates, faculty and upperclassmen. Hazing was not an unusual practice at the male dominated military academies. Charles Young, however, was subjected to a disproportionate amount of abuse because of his color.

There are many stories about Young’s struggles at West Point. Upon arrival to West Point, Young was welcomed in as “The Load of Coal”. Once, in the mess hall, a white cadet proclaimed that he would not take food from a platter that Young had already taken from. Young passed the white cadet the plate first, allowing him to take from it, then he himself took from the plate. Upperclassmen targeted and demerited Young 140 times, which would have been considered unusually high. Whereas Young’s peers were referred to by their last names, Young was called “Mr. Young” as a kind of feigned deference. One of Young’s greatest struggles at West Point was loneliness. A white classmate of Young’s, Major General Charles D. Rhodes, later reported that it was a practice of Young to converse with some of the servants at West Point in German to maintain some human interaction.

Towards the end of his five-year stay at West Point, the merciless discrimination and taunts decreased. Because of his perseverance, some of Young’s classmates began to see past the color of his skin. Despite this and by his own admission, Charles Young’s time at West Point was fraught with difficulty.

Young graduated in 1889 (Cullum number 3330) with his commission as a second lieutenant, the third black man to do so at the time (after Henry Ossian Flipper and John Hanks Alexander, and the last one until Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. in 1936). He was first assigned to the Tenth U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Through a reassignment, he served first with the Ninth U.S. Cavalry Regiment, starting in Nebraska. His subsequent service of 28 years was chiefly with black troops—the Ninth U.S. Cavalry and the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, black troops nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers” since the Indian Wars. The armed services were racially segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman initiated integration by executive order, which took some years to complete.

After getting established in his career, Young married Ada Mills on February 18, 1904 in Oakland, California. They had two children: Charles Noel, born in 1906 in Ohio, and Marie Aurelia, born in 1909 when Young and his family were stationed in the Philippines.

Young began his service with the Ninth Cavalry in the American West: from 1889 to 1890 he served at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and from 1890 to 1894 at Fort Duchesne, Utah.

In 1894, Lieutenant Young was assigned to Wilberforce College in Ohio, an historically black college (HBCU), to lead the new military sciences department, established under a special federal grant. A professor for four years, he was one of several outstanding men on staff, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who became his close friend.

When the Spanish–American War broke out, Young was promoted to the temporary rank of major of Volunteers on May 14, 1898. He commanded the 9th Ohio Infantry Regiment which was, in the terminology of the day, a “colored” (i.e. African-American) unit. Despite its name, the 9th Ohio was only battalion sized with four companies. The short war ended before Young and his men could be sent overseas. Young’s command of this unit is significant because it was probably the first time in history an African-American commanded a sizable unit of the United States Army and one of the very few instances prior to the late 20th Century. He was mustered out of the volunteers on January 28, 1899, and reverted to his regular army rank of first lieutenant. He was promoted to captain in the 9th Cavalry Regiment on February 2, 1901.

In 1903, Young served as captain of a black company at the Presidio of San Francisco. He was then appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant national parks, becoming the first black superintendent of a national park. (At that time the military supervised all national parks.) Because of limited funding, however, the Army assigned its soldiers for short-term assignments during the summers, which made it difficult for the officers to accomplish longer-term goals. Young supervised payroll accounts and directed the activities of rangers.

Young’s greatest impact on the park was managing road construction, which helped improve the underdeveloped park and allow more visitors to enjoy it. Young’s men accomplished more that summer than had been done under the three officers assigned to the park during the previous three summers. Captain Young’s troops completed a wagon road to the Giant Forest, home of the world’s largest trees, and a road to the base of the famous Moro Rock. By mid-August, the wagons of visitors could enter the mountaintop forest for the first time.

With the end of the brief summer construction season, Young was transferred on November 2, 1903, and reassigned as a troop commander of the Tenth Cavalry at the Presidio. In his final report on Sequoia Park to the Secretary of the Interior, he recommended that the government acquire privately held lands there, to secure more park area for future generations. This recommendation was noted in legislation when it was introduced in the United States House of Representatives.

With the Army’s founding of the Military Intelligence Department, in 1904 it assigned Young as one of the first military attachés, serving in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was to collect intelligence on different groups in Haiti, to help identify forces that might destabilize the government. He served there for three years.

In 1908 Young was sent to the Philippines to join his Ninth Regiment and command a squadron of two troops. It was his second tour there. After his return to the United States, he served for two years at Fort D.A. Russell, Wyoming.

In 1912 Young was assigned as military attaché to Liberia, the first African-American to hold that post. For three years, he served as an expert adviser to the Liberian government and also took a direct role in supervising construction of the country’s infrastructure. For his achievements, in 1916 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Young the Spingarn Medal, given annually to the African American demonstrating the highest achievement and contributions.

In 1912 Young published The Military Morale of Nations and Races, a remarkably prescient study of the cultural sources of military power. He argued against the prevailing theories of the fixity of racial character, using history and social science to demonstrate that even supposedly servile or un-military races (such as Negroes and Jews) displayed martial virtues when fighting for democratic societies. Thus the key to raising an effective mass army from among a polyglot American people was to link patriotic service with fulfillment of the democratic promise of equal rights and fair play for all. Young’s book was dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, and invoked the principles of Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism”.

During the 1916 Punitive Expedition by the United States into Mexico, then-Major Young commanded the 2nd Squadron of the 10th United States Cavalry. While leading a cavalry pistol charge against Pancho Villa’s forces at Agua Caliente (1 April 1916), he routed the opposing forces without losing a single man.

Because of his exceptional leadership of the 10th Cavalry in the Mexican theater of war, Young was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in September 1916. He was assigned as commander of Fort Huachuca, the base in Arizona of the Tenth Cavalry, nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers”, until mid 1917. He was the first African American to achieve the rank of colonel in the US Army.

With the United States about to enter World War I, Young stood a good chance of being promoted to brigadier general. However, there was widespread resistance among white officers, especially those from the segregated South, who did not want to be outranked by an African American. A lieutenant who served under Young complained to the War Department, and Secretary of War Newton Baker replied that he should “either do his duty or resign.” John Sharp Williams, senator from Mississippi, complained on the lieutenant’s behalf to President Woodrow Wilson. The President overruled Baker’s decision and had the lieutenant transferred. (In 1913, Southern-born Wilson had segregated federal offices and established discrimination in other ways).

Baker considered sending Young to Fort Des Moines, an officer training camp for African Americans. However, Baker realized that if Young were allowed to fight in Europe with black troops under his command, he would be eligible for promotion to brigadier general, and it would be impossible not to have white officers serving under him. The War Department instead removed Young from active duty, claiming it was due to his high blood pressure. Young was placed temporarily on the inactive list (with the rank of colonel) on June 22, 1917.

In May 1917 Young appealed to Theodore Roosevelt for support of his application for reinstatement. Roosevelt was then in the midst of his campaign to form a “volunteer division” for early service in France in World War I. Roosevelt appears to have planned to recruit at least one and perhaps two black regiments for the division, something he had not told President Wilson or Secretary of War Baker. He immediately wrote to Young offering him command of one of the prospective regiments, saying “there is not another man [besides yourself] who would be better fitted to command such a regiment.” Roosevelt also promised Young carte blanche in appointing staff and line officers for the unit. However, Wilson refused Roosevelt permission to organize his volunteer division.

Young returned to Wilberforce University, where he was a professor of military science through most of 1918. On November 6, 1918, after he had traveled by horseback from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. to prove his physical fitness, he was reinstated on active duty as a colonel. Baker did not rescind his order that Young be forcibly retired. In 1919, Young was reassigned as military attaché to Liberia.

While Young was on a reconnaissance mission in Nigeria in late 1921, he suddenly became debilitatingly ill. Young died of a kidney infection at the British hospital in Lagos on January 8, 1922. Because his death took place in a British hospital, his body was required to be buried in Lagos where it remained for an entire year. During that year, Young’s wife and many notable African Americans at the time demanded that Young’s body be brought back from Nigeria so that he could receive “a proper military burial.”  More than a year after his death, Charles Young’s body was finally exhumed and brought back to American soil. When his body finally made it to New York, he received a hero’s welcome. There were large crowds of people there, all to pay honor to Young’s long and accomplished military career. He was given a full military funeral and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 3 across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. He was the fourth soldier to receive a funeral in Arlington Memorial Amphitheater. He is buried with a large tombstone that states his name, military rank, and year of birth and death and other side simply says “Young.” He had become a public and respected figure because of his unique achievements in the Army, and his obituary was carried in The New York Times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s