The first African-American colonel in the U.S. military, Charles Young was born in Mays Lick, Ky., in 1864.
A leader of the buffalo soldiers on the frontier who later led men in combat in the Philippines and Mexico, he was widely respected in the military and for his diverse talents in diplomacy, writing, and music.
“Charles Young was what we would call a race man, meaning he was looking for the uplift of his race,” said historian Jerry Gore. “He realized if he failed at his task, it was more than just him failing.”
After Young was born, his father left Kentucky and joined the Union Army in Ripley, Ohio. His father came back for his family and moved them all to freedom in Ohio. He was homeschooled by his mother, according to Brian G. Shellum, a historian and biographer of Young.
“In Ripley, Ohio, the schools were segregated, so he attended a black elementary school. And as he attended high school, the black school just didn’t have courses that were hard enough for him. So he went to the white high school,” Shellum said.
From there, Young went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After graduation, he joined the 9th Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Neb., an African-American unit. In 1894 he became the first professor of military science and tactics at Wilberforce University in Ohio. From May to October 1903 he was assigned to Sequoia National Park, becoming the first African American to be a national park superintendent.
Then in 1904 he was assigned as the first black military attache to Haiti. From there, he became a military attache in Liberia from 1912-16. While there, Gore said, Young recorded much of the political history of those countries. In 1913, Young’s book, “The Military Morale of Nations and Races,” was published.
Shellum said Young was a talented linguist. “He could speak fluent German, French, Spanish, and then he dabbled in another half a dozen languages,” he said.
Charles Wash, Ph.D., executive director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, said Young was a prolific writer. “The extent to which he wrote was also kind of a surprise. It seems to me that the amount of material that we have, every moment that he had free he must have been writing, or formulating some ideas for his poetry, for his music,” he said.
Young was a talented musician, playing organ, piano, and violin. He not only wrote music, he illustrated the covers of his published works.
He served in Mexico, and then in 1917, as the United States was preparing for World War I, Young was up for promotion, Shellum said. During a checkup, doctors found he had high blood pressure. “But because of his ability as an officer – he looked so physically fit – the board recommended that those medical conditions be waived, and that he be promoted so that he could be sent to Europe and assist in the coming war,” Shellum said.
To show his fitness, Gore said, Young even rode horseback from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington D.C.
He did not get the promotion, however. “A lot of historians feel that the real reason was that there were a number of senators from Louisiana that did not want their white boys serving under a black officer,” Gore said. “And they went to Woodrow Wilson and convinced him not to let that promotion go through.”
Young remained on active duty and trained African American recruits in Ohio for service overseas. After the war, he was recalled to active duty and offered an assignment as military attache to Liberia. He died while on a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, in January 1922. His body was returned to the United States a year later, and he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
For many years he was the lone black military officer in the United States, Shellum said.
Gore noted that Young had great responsibilities in each of his posts. “Colonel Young was a man of his time, but he was a man far ahead of his time,” Gore said.
(Note: Jerry Gore, a founding member of the National Underground Railroad Museum, passed away on Aug. 3, 2016. A historian, he was CEO of Freedom Time, a company that organizes tours of Underground Railroad sites.)