To wrap up Black History Month I can’t think of a more deserving individual whose accomplishments we can celebrate than Colonel Charles Young. Young had a long and distinguished career not just as a military leader of African American troops, but also as an educator and the nation’s first black superintendent of a national park, all during Jim Crow America.
Young was born in 1864 to the son of slaves in Kentucky. His father self-emancipated and joined the Fifth Regiment of the Colored Artillery (Heavy) Volunteers, undoubtedly influencing Young’s own path. Young was the only black student at the all-white high school he attended in Ripley, Ohio. He graduated early, at 16 years old, at the top of the class – the first black student there to graduate with honors. After working as a high school teacher, Young’s achievements continued at West Point. Despite struggling with mathematics and engineering, Young excelled in other subjects like strategy and languages. Throughout his time at West Point he suffered a relentless stream of discrimination and taunting for the color of his skin, but he continued on. He was commissioned as second lieutenant in 1887, only the third black man to earn that rank.
Portrait of Cadet Charles Young by Pach Brothers, NY. Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio.
Limited to overseeing exclusively black troops, much of his early career was spent out West with the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalry regiments, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” where he quickly rose through the ranks. In the fall of 1894, Young was sent to Wilberforce, Ohio, to oversee the planning, curriculum, and teaching at the new Military Sciences and Tactics program at Wilberforce University, a historically black college. W. E. B. DuBois also taught at the university.
By 1903 Young was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, serving as captain of a black company there. He left briefly to work with the National Parks Service, where he was appointed the nation’s first black superintendent. He worked at both Sequoia and General Grant national parks, where he was responsible for supervising payroll, managing the work of rangers and other employees, and overseeing road construction to the underdeveloped parks, greatly increasing access for the growing number of Americans travelling west.
Already distinguished in the military, in education, and within the NPS, Young also made his mark in diplomatic affairs. He was the first Military Attaché to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1904, and in the following decade served a similar position in Liberia, helping to train the Liberian Frontier Force. He also commanded troops in the Philippines, and in Mexico against Pancho Villa’s men.
Major Charles Young with troops in Mexico, 1916. Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio.
This impressive career of service did not go unnoticed. Young continued to receive promotions throughout his career, first to major in 1912, followed by lieutenant colonel in 1916, and colonel in 1917. He was the first African American to receive the rank of colonel, but not without pushback from angry whites. Many worried that if Young would be sent overseas with his regiment during the world war, he would then likely be able to rise even higher in the ranks to brigadier general. Young was forced to resign for “medical reasons,” and thus did not receive any further promotions or awards. Although briefly reinstated for active duty as colonel in 1918, he was sent again to Liberia, where he passed away on January 8, 1922. When his body was finally returned to U.S. soil the following year, Young was given a hero’s welcome and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
We have a number of documents related to Charles Young in the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, including letters related to his forced retirement and reinstatement, among other items, available here.