Charles Young was born March 12, 1864, in Mayslick, Kentucky, the son of former slaves. His father enlisted as a private in the Fifth Regiment of the Colored Artillery (Heavy) Volunteers. When Young’s parents moved across the river to Ripley, Ohio, he attended the white high school. He graduated at the age of 16 and was the first black to graduate with honors. Following graduation, he taught school in the black high school of Ripley.
While engaged in teaching, he had an opportunity to enter a competitive examination for appointment as a cadet at West Point. Young was successful, making the second highest score, and in 1883 reported to the military academy. Young graduated with his commission, the third black man to do so at that time. He was assigned to the Tenth and the Seventh Cavalry where he was promoted to first lieutenant. His subsequent service of 28 years was with black troops – the Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry and the Ninth U.S. Cavalry.
In 1903 Young served as captain of a black company at the Presidio, San Francisco. He was appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant national parks, thus becoming the first black superintendents of a national park. He was responsible for the supervision of payroll accounts and directed the activities of rangers. Young’s greatest impact on the park was road construction that helped to improve the underdeveloped park.
Due to his work ethic and perseverance, Young and his troops accomplished more that summer than the three military officers who had been assigned the previous three years. Captain Young and his 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, wagons of visitors were entering the mountaintop forest for the first time.
Young was transferred on November 2, 1903, and reassigned as troop commander at the Presidio. In his report to the secretary of the interior, he recommended the government acquire patented lands in the park. This recommendation was mentioned in legislation introduced in the House of Representatives. The Visalia, California, Board of Trade showed appreciation of his performance as the park’s acting superintendent by presenting him with a citation.
On other military assignments, Young continued to persevere in a world of obstacles in his path. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, the first black to do so in the U.S. Army. He died in 1922, while detailed in Nigeria. Colonel Young was given a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
In both military and civilian activities, Young demonstrated qualities of character during a time when prejudice was a way of life. As mentioned in the 53rd Annual Report of the Association of West Point Graduates, “…in all his relations with society, both as a citizen and soldier, his constructive influence with his people was ever a potent factor along troublous highway of enlightened progress.”
We honor you, Charles Young.