Colonel Charles Young

Colonel Charles Young is remembered and honored as a man of unique courage and inspiration. This was especially true for those of "goodwill", who knew him, and for those who followed him into battle. He stands honored both as an African-American and in the history of African-Americans in the U.S. military.

Charles Young was the third African American to be graduated from West Point and the first to attain the rank of Colonel in the United States Army, which in 1917 was unprecedented. After Young's graduation from West Point, it was 47 years before another African American was to be graduated. In those 47 years, between 1889 and 1936, were some of the most racially charged years in American history. These were the years when the seeds of racism, planted during slavery, became entrenched into the American social order.

Charles Young was born into slavery on March 12, 1864 to Gabriel Young and Arminta Bruen in May's Lick, Kentucky, a small village near Maysville. His father Gabriel escaped from slavery in 1865, going across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio,  and enlisting as a private in the Fifth Regiment of the Colored Artillery (Heavy) Volunteers during the American Civil War. Accounts differ as to whether he took his wife and son Charles with him then. His service earned him and his wife freedom. As a young woman, his wife Arminta had learned to read and write, and may have had status as a house slave before becoming free.

After the war, the entire family migrated to Ripley in 1866, where the parents decided opportunities were better than in postwar Kentucky. Gabriel had earned a bonus by continuing to serve in the Army after the war and had a stake to buy land. As a youth, Charles Young attended the all-white high school in Ripley, the only one available. He graduated at age 16 at the top of his class. Following graduation, he taught school for a few years at the newly established black high school of Ripley.

While teaching, Young took a competitive examination for appointment as a cadet at United States Military Academy at West Point. He achieved the second highest score in the district in 1883, and after the primary candidate dropped out, Young reported to the academy in 1884, and graduated in 1889. His 28 years of military service took place around the globe in a variety of both peaceful and fighting assignments.

Young's first assignment after graduation was with the Buffalo Soldiers in the 10th Cavalry in Nebraska, and then in the 9th and 10th Cavalries in Utah. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he was reassigned as Second Lieutenant to training duty at Camp Algers, Virginia.

In 1894 Lieutenant Young was assigned to Wilberforce College in Ohio, a historically black college, to lead the new military sciences department, which was established under a special federal grant. As a professor for four years, he was one of a number of outstanding men on the staff, including W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom he became friends.

In 1903, Captain Young was in command of the 10th Cavalry, who were segregated at the Presidio of San Francisco. He was assigned "Acting Superintendent" of Sequoia National Parks in California for the summer. The management of the park, and building of roads was the responsibility of the army, which had very little Congressional funding.

Charles Young became both the first United States Military Attaché to be posted to Haiti and the Dominican Republic and also the first Black American Military Attaché in the history of the United States. Charles Young was very valuable to America in foreign posts because of his excellent command of foreign languages. He spoke fluent French, German, and Spanish.

Captain Charles Young was sent to the Philippines to join his 9th regiment and command a squadron of two troops in 1908. Four years later he was once again selected for Military Attaché duty, this time to Liberia. For his service as adviser to the Liberian Government and his supervision of the building of the country's infrastructure, he was awarded the Springarn Medal, an award that annually recognized the African-American who had made the highest achievement during the year in any field of honorable human endeavor.

During the 1916 Pershing's Punitive Expedition into Mexico, Young was praised for his leadership in the pursuit of the bandit Pancho Villa, who had murdered American citizens. Commanding a squadron of the 10th United States Cavalry, he led a cavalry pistol charge against the Villista forces, routing the opposing forces without losing a single man. The swift action saved the wounded General Beltran and his men, who had been outflanked.

When World War I began, Colonial Charles Young rode to Washington to volunteer for the war effort. Although it was his desire to fight in France, he was instead stationed in Illinois.

Charles Young died January 8, 1922 of a kidney infection while on a reconnaissance mission in Nigeria. His body was returned to the United States, where he was given a full military funeral and buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC. He had become a public and respected figure because of his unique achievements in the US Army, and his obituary was carried in the New York Times.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on African American veterans who rose to the top of their field

Revolutionary & Civil War

The Revolutionary War set precedents for black military service. Both Africans and African Americans fought on both sides of this war, often as a means for a black slave to win his freedom.

World War I

When World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

World War II

African Americans made up over one million of the more than 16 million U.S. men and women to serve in World War II. Some of these men served in infantry, artillery, and tank units.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces.

Vietnam War & Iraq

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam.


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