The Model Soldier
Col. Charles Young, raised in the Ohio River town of Ripley, was a military leader, diplomat and scholar.
In January of 1922, readers of The New York Times ran across a brief and cryptic dispatch. The headline read:
COL. CHARLES YOUNG
DIES IN NIGERIA
Noted U.S. Cavalry Commander Was the
Only Negro to Reach Rank of Colonel.
WASHINGTON, Jan. 12. — The passing of a picturesque and interesting figure in American Army life was recorded in a cablegram to the State Department from Monrovia, Liberia, which reported the death, in Nigeria, of Colonel Charles Young, formerly of the Tenth United States Cavalry, who commanded a squadron in General Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Villa, and the only member of the negro race to reach the rank of colonel in the regular Army of the United States.
Young, who was reared in Ohio and called the state home for much of his life, was far more than the short article suggested. He was, as biographer David P. Kilroy called him, “unquestionably the greatest African American military figure of his generation” — a man who pressed hard against the very thick glass ceiling of bigotry to rise through the ranks and excel as a leader on fronts ranging from Mexico to the Philippines.
Over the course of his career, he was the nation’s first black military attaché, the first black superintendent of a U.S. national park, the third black graduate of West Point — and, as the Times story pointed out, the highest-ranking black army officer of his day. And yet, the institutional racism of that day kept him from general’s rank and a wartime field command. Bitterness tainted the end of his otherwise remarkable career.
A few years before his death, Col. Young received a letter from a young black man asking his counsel as to whether the military was a worthy career and a good use of his time. Young wrote back: “My advice is, don’t think of it. If you put one-half of the time, patience, diligence and ‘pep’ in any other profession or vocation, you will succeed and get rich but if you go thru the Military Academy it means a dog’s life while you are there and for years after you graduate, a pittance of a salary as a subaltern and in the end retirement on a mere competence, which does not pay if you have a little girl in view that wishes to wear diamonds.
“I tell you this as a brother who has been over the whole road. I wish I had taken my time and put in tropical agriculture and supplemented it with the Spanish language and I would have been a rich man now instead of a Colonel on the scrap heap of the U.S. Army.”
That deep disappointment isn’t evident in the proud pictures of Young, whose photographs show a crisply uniformed, handsome man with an intense gaze and a square, determined jaw. The son of Kentucky slaves, he was born in 1864 and brought across the Ohio River to be raised in freedom when his father stole away to Ripley to join the Union army. Young grew up in the river town, known as a portal for escaping slaves. He graduated from high school at age 16 — the only non-white in the school — and spent several years teaching black schoolchildren in Ripley before deciding to move on and see the world.
But as it had for his father, the army beckoned.
When he was 20, Young entered West Point Military Academy, one of only two black cadets there at the time. When he graduated in 1889, the new second lieutenant joined the Tenth Cavalry — one of two all-black U.S. army regiments, along with the Ninth, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” and famed for their fighting during the Indian Wars. Young spent nearly all of his career associated with the historic and well-regarded regiment, and a handful of other all-black units.
He served at forts in Nebraska and Utah before being sent back to Ohio on a special assignment in 1894. Wilberforce University, the historically black school near Xenia in southwest Ohio, had received federal funding to create a military sciences program; Young was to run it and teach. Wilberforce was a lively nexus of African-American thinkers, writers, teachers and intelligentsia at the time; among them was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of Young’s friends. Young bought a home near Wilberforce — built in 1859, it had been an Underground Railroad site — and spent four years there, returning occasionally through the years, between assignments.
After 1900, those assignments became challenging and diverse. He served in California as captain of a black army company stationed near Sequoia National Park, and built roads that helped open the area to the public, while also providing advice to the government that helped expand and consolidate the park.
He served as an attaché — the military officer or expert assigned to an embassy or consulate — in Haiti, and served in the Philippines during the long insurrection against American rule there. He also was an attaché in Liberia, helping the United States build the government in the country that had been founded as a home for ex-slaves. During Gen. John Pershing’s 1916 raid into Mexico to hunt down the border-crossing bandit Pancho Villa, Young commanded a squadron, and his service there earned him promotion to lieutenant colonel, and then colonel.
When the U.S. entered World War I, he wanted to serve and hoped for a general’s star. He put in for the job, but was told by army doctors that his blood pressure was too high, and he was sidelined back to Wilberforce in 1918. He was furious, believing he was being put off due to racism. He made a decision that brought him to national prominence. To prove that he was fit enough to serve in Europe, Young made a trip on horseback from Wilberforce to Washington, D.C. — 500 miles — to prove a point. The ride received the attention he wanted.
“A maelstrom of controversy erupted” over Young’s treatment, writes biographer Kilroy in 2003’s, For Race and Country: The Life and Career of Colonel Charles Young.
“Charges of racism were levied against the army and the White House by those who felt the medical board’s findings were a ruse to avoid the eventuality of an African American officer attaining the rank of general and thus challenging the racial dogma of the incapacity of Blacks for leadership.” Kilroy calls Young’s ride “a final act of bravery in a career characterized by dogged persistence in the face of racism and prejudice.”
He didn’t get Europe, but was instead sent to Liberia again as an attaché, charged with reconnaissance and mapping work in the region. There he fell ill with a kidney infection and died in Nigeria in 1922. His body was eventually sent to Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military honors. Thousands of young black schoolchildren were excused from class to watch the last trip of a great man — a role model, and an example of how to keep on pushing, pushing, pushing.
After him, writes biographer Brian Shellum in 2006’s Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point, “racial intolerance closed the door to blacks at the academy, and another half century passed before another African American graduated from West Point. Young was not alive to see Benjamin O. Davis Jr. graduate in 1936, but he had passed the torch to another generation of black West Pointers.”
“The history of Young’s life transcends the fields of military, diplomatic, and African American history,” Kilroy writes in his biography, “and offers a guided tour through one of the most important epochs in the American experience, from the end of the Civil War to the emergence of the United States as a world power during the First World War. It is a story that highlights the African American struggle to make the quantum leap from slavery to citizenship. ... Charles Young’s career … was shaped by the color of his skin. His assignments were always carefully chosen to deal with what his superiors saw as an anomaly, a Black officer in a White man’s army.”
A shame. And a waste.
Today, Young’s home, a white two-story on U.S. Rte. 42 between Xenia and Wilberforce, is under the care of nearby Central State University and has been proposed for inclusion within the National Park Service as a historical site. Ed Roach, historian at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, says legislation to authorize a study of the house — looking at such things as its historical importance, condition and management options, for instance — is before Congress. If approved, a study could take two to three years, says Roach, and another bill would have to be passed to place the property under park service care.
In 2001, when he was a U.S. senator from Ohio, Mike DeWine, who hails from the county in which Young lived, put before the Senate a resolution that recognized the colonel’s life and work, along with that of the hundreds of other lesser-known Buffalo Soldiers.
It states in part: “Whereas among these heroes, Colonel Charles Young, of Ripley, Ohio, stands out as a shining example of the dedication, service, and commitment of the Buffalo Soldiers. ...”
Better late than never, one might reasonably ask? Hard to say what Col. Young, always a man who wanted to get right to it, might have said about that.