Today we will visit with Colonel Charles Young, the third Black man to graduate from West Point and the first Black man to achieve the rank of Colonel in the United States Regular Army.
Black Officer Built an Army Career Only to Become a Victim of Bigotry
22 Febriary 2004
By Elizabeth Sullivan
Cleveland Plain Dealer Staff Writer
The vast sweep of history often masks the small dramas that define it. Such is the case with Colonel Charles Young, a now-obscure American military officer whose brilliant career-against- the-odds 100 years ago spanned the era from slavery to empire. His story illuminates the best and worst of this time, when men such as himself, who were born into slavery and rose to prominence in every field, were denied their rightful places in an America beginning to flex its muscles in the world.
Young’s career was glittering but unfulfilled. With a general’s star in grasp, bigotry ended his advancement as surely as a bullet would have. The nation that deemed Young too sick to serve in World War I sent him on a military intelligence assignment to Liberia as soon as the war was over. It was a mission his closest friends knew he wouldn’t survive. Young died in Nigeria in 1922, leaving his wife and two kids to scrape by in southern Ohio by selling much of their property. The justifiable outcry from black America meant Young was buried at Arlington National Cemetery the following year. But soon his exceptional career and contributions were forgotten.
Young today is not nearly as well known as other pioneering black military figures, including Henry O. Flipper, the first black to graduate from West Point, who was drummed out of the service in 1882 on questionable charges that President Bill Clinton pardoned in 1999, and Benjamin O. Davis, America’s first black general. Yet it was Young who spanned the era between these two men, who had the lifelong military career that Flipper was denied and who kept the possibilities alive for all who followed, including Davis, one of many black soldiers he mentored.
One of the problems in writing about Young has been the lack of a coherent, comprehensive archive. His personal papers were scattered after relatives auctioned off many items 23 years ago when the family home in Wilberforce was sold. Most of his Army file had gone up in smoke in a 1973 St. Louis fire, while his pioneering military intelligence studies from Haiti were largely destroyed in a State Department housecleaning in the 1920s.
Now, thanks to the dogged research skills and vision of a talented young historian in West Virginia, a just-published biography fills the gaps, plus some. While not precisely a page-turner, David Kilroy’s book, “For Race and Country,” is well-written, fast-paced, positively dripping with new information, yet economical of word.
More importantly, Kilroy, an associate professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University, pieces together a readable story out of the most far-flung bits of evidence. Kilroy also has found the mother lode that eluded earlier researchers: A private collection in Akron holds the bulk of Colonel Young’s posthumously auctioned personal papers, including diary entries, letters and even musical scores, as well as the biographical contributions of Young’s wife and son.
The book is copiously footnoted, but apart from an awkward construct in which each chapter opens with a summary of itself, the scholarly dressing doesn’t appreciably slow this tale. In fact, Kilroy hoped to have his first book rated as general nonfiction. No such luck. The “academic” tag it carries reflects in the forbidding all- black cover and an eye-popping suggested retail price of $67.95.
That’s too bad. Young’s story deserves the widest possible telling. The injustice done him should not be forgotten.
Through pioneering military intelligence work in Haiti and Liberia, and combat in the Philippines and Mexico, Young directly contributed to the beginnings of the American empire. Likewise, through his dedication to race and his conviction that the “talented tenth” of black America could pull up not only other blacks, but also blacks throughout the world, Young contributed to a renaissance in American cultural life. His military, literary and anthropological studies all show a prescient sense of how small the world really is.
Sadly, these accomplishments, patriotism and self-sacrifice were for naught. On the eve of U.S. entry into World War I, Young was forced into retirement by a White House that would not accept the possibility of a Black Army general, and so it made sure he was out of commission for the duration of the war.
Young had managed to overcome years of slights and discrimination through the sheer power of his good humor, charm, talent and dedication to country. But he could not prevail over the racism of an American president, Woodrow Wilson.
At first, Young, who in 1917 was fresh from a field promotion to lieutenant colonel during action against Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico, couldn’t believe that he was being thrown “on the scrap heap of the U.S. Army,” as he later put it in a bitter letter to a young Cincinnati man contemplating a military career. He ached to serve his country. And for many, many months, he still thought he would be able to. The reality was crushing.
Young died with his boots on, but it was not the just finish to his exemplary life that he deserved. It is a life that comes alive again in Kilroy’s 183 pages.
Charles Young. (2012). ArlingtonCemetery.net. Retrieved 12:28 25 Feb 2012 from http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/cdyoung.htm
Thanks for your attention.