Charles Young was born into slavery in Kentucky on March 12, 1864. His father escaped bondage to join the Union Army during the Civil War, and Young later followed in his father’s military footsteps, attending the United States Military Academy. Young was only the third African-American to graduate from West Point when he earned his degree in 1889. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Ninth Cavalry, the famed Buffalo Soldiers, in Nebraska.
Young graduated in 1889 with his commission as a second lieutenant, the third Black man to do so at the time (after Henry Ossian Flipper and John Hanks Alexander, and the last one until Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. in 1936). He was first assigned to the Tenth U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Through a reassignment, he served first with the Ninth U.S. Cavalry Regiment, starting in Nebraska.
In 1901, Young was promoted to the rank of captain (the first Black officer in the regular army to receive that rank) and led his troops with distinction in the Philippines. In 1903, Captain Young and his men were stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco. They were sent to Sequoia and General Grant National Parks as part of the army’s role at the time of protecting national parks, and Young was named acting superintendent, making him the first African-American to be put in charge of a national 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.
Under Acting Superintendent Young’s leadership, the Buffalo Soldiers kept the park free from poachers, and from the ranchers whose grazing sheep destroyed the parks’ natural habitats.
His subsequent service of 28 years was chiefly with black troops—the Ninth U.S. Cavalry and the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, black troops nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers” since the Indian Wars. The armed services were racially segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman initiated integration by executive order, which took some years to complete.
Later, Young was dispatched to Haiti as the United States’ military attachè, sent again to the Phillipines, then to Republic of Liberia. During the “punitive expedition” in pursuit of Pancho Villa, Young was put in command of troops from the Tenth Cavalry and promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He would eventually become a full colonel, although – to his bitter disappointment – he was not permitted to serve in the field during World War I.
Charles Young died in 1922 during a visit to Nigeria; ultimately, his remains were buried in Arlington Cemetery. Services were held at Arlington in the Memorial Amphitheater, which had not been used for a like service of an individual officer or man since the burial of America’s Unknown Dead. The Negro population of Washington made the occasion of Colonel Young’s funeral one of demonstration in respect for his memory, Negro school being closed for the day, and thousands gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue and at Arlington. Many veterans’ organizations one the Negro High School Cadets participated in the funeral parades.
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 the troublous highway of enlightened progress.”