(Photo: U.S. Army)

Colonel Charles Young was a highly-decorated member of the U.S. Army that went on to achieve a number of firsts. Despite enduring extreme racism as a student at the West Point Military Academy, Young became the first Black man to achieve the rank of colonel and was also the first Black military attaché for Liberia.

Young was born into slavery on March 12, 1864 in Mays Lick, Kentucky. His father fought in the American Civil War and his service in a colored artillery troop earned him and the family their freedom. Young entered West Point, becoming its third Black graduate in 1889 at the rank of second lieutenant while suffering five years of hazing and discrimination. He was assigned as a military sciences professor to the all-Black Wilberforce University for four years, which is where he befriended W.E.B. Du Bois.

Serving with the Black units of the 9th and 10th Calvary, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, Young gave 28 years of service to the Army via the two calvaries, and while doing so as the first African-American soldier to command a sizable unit of the Army during the Spanish-American War.

Because of his high blood pressure, Young was declared unfit to serve during World War I despite his high-ranking. While teaching at Wilberforce, Young rode 500 miles from Ohio to Washington, D.C. on horseback to prove his fitness and was deemed “medically retired” but still was listed as an active duty officer. During the first World War, Young was assigned to train young Black recruits in Ohio and in 1918, he did the same for recruits in Camp Grant in Illinois.

Young was also named as the first Black National Park Superintendent in 1903, overseeing California’s Sequoia National Park. Col. Young’s attaché appointment in Liberia took place in 1912, and he also served in that role for Haiti in 1904.

Once more, Young was named the military attaché to Liberia in 1920. While serving in the role and on a visit to Nigeria in 1921, Young fell ill and died in Lagos in January 1922. The colonel’s body remained in Nigeria for a full year but the efforts of his wife, Ada, and other African-American notables ensured that his remains returned to American soil.

Young was properly buried in June 1923 at the Arlington National Cemetery alongside other military heroes.

 

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