Black History Month: Charles Young's influence gaining wider regard

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Words by and about Charles Young

    "The annals of American history are filled with the names of our nation's greatest heroes, yet the name Charles Young is known by remarkably few Americans. ... He carried the torch of equality and claimed nothing but the opportunity to serve his country honorably and equally."

    Vincent K. Brooks, brigadier general, United States Army, foreword to Brian Shellum's book "Black Cadet in a White Bastion"

    "So you see you can not always tell the wide reaching influence of a word of cheer to even a black man. God knows how many white ones I have helped because you all helped me. Simply trying to pay the interest on the debt of gratitude, I owe you, that's all."

    a 1915 letter from Charles Young to Colonel Delamere Skerrett, a fellow graduate of the West Point class of 1889

  • Want to know more about Young?

    ■ Brian Shellum's biographies of Young, Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point (Bison Books, $16.95), and Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young (Bison Books, $14.83) are available at Amazon.com.

    ■ The National Park Service features some details on "Buffalo Soldiers," as the black regiments were called, serving in the national parks. The soldiers got the nickname from the Indians, who compared their dark, curly hair to that of the head of a buffalo. Nps.gov

    ■ The Texas State Historical Association is a starting point for more information on the Buffalo Soldiers: Tshaonline.org

  • Quotes

    "The annals of American history are filled with the names of our nation's greatest heroes, yet the name Charles Young is known by remarkably few Americans. ... He carried the torch of equality and claimed nothing but the opportunity to serve his country honorably and equally." — Vincent K. Brooks, brigadier general, United States Army, foreword to Brian Shellum's book Black Cadet in a White Bastion

    "So you see you can not always tell the wide reaching influence of a word of cheer to even a black man. God knows how many white ones I have helped because you all helped me. Simply trying to pay the interest on the debt of gratitude, I owe you, that's all."

    —a 1915 letter from Charles Young to Colonel Delamere Skerrett, a fellow graduate of the West Point class of 1889

    "It was not enough for him to do well. He must always do better; and so much and so conspicuously better, as to disarm the scoundrels that ever trailed him. He lived in the army surrounded by insult and intrigue and yet he set his teeth and kept his soul serene and triumphed." — W.E.B. DuBois on Young

If you've ever been to the Charles Young Center at 540 East Third Street, you may have assumed that Young was a Lexington leader.

He wasn't.

Charles Young's influence was nationwide, his reach international. Born into slavery in Kentucky, he was nonetheless the third black man to graduate from West Point. He was friends with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

No other black would graduate from the military college for 50 years afterward.

He was the only one of the first three black students admitted at West Point to enjoy a lengthy and documented military career. The first, Henry Flipper, was court-martialed five years after graduation; the second, John Alexander, died a few years after graduation.

"If it were not for Young, we may not have had Gen. Colin Powell as the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Gen. Vincent Brooks as the first black first captain of the Corps of Cadets," wrote author Bryan Shellum.

Young might have been the first black general but for his health problems and the institutional racism in the army, where he was rebuffed by those opposed to having a black man command white troops.

Nonetheless, he fought Pancho Villa's forces in Mexico, guerrillas in the Phillipines and served in Cuba. He was a military attache in Haiti and helped organize Liberian military forces. He rode nearly 500 miles in an effort to convince higher-ups that he was fit to command in World War I.

In 1999, Mason County historian Jerry Gore said that he feared that Young's name was "one that would be lost to history." But Young is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

The National Coalition of Black Veterans is asking President Barack Obama to posthumously promote Young to the rank of brigadier general, a move endorsed by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, (D-Calif.). In Wilberforce, Ohio, there's a move afoot to turn the Charles Young House into a National Park site and open a research center on black military history there.

In official matters, Young was treated "pretty much equal" with his white contemporaries, said Shellum, a defense analyst in Washington who began researching Young as a subject of outreach speeches but soon became engrossed in his life and wrote two books about him.

But with other parts of his military life, Shellum said, "There was a clear color line. He had to make his own rule to survive and thrive."

Young was born a slave on March 12, 1864 in Helena, Ky. near the town of May's Lick in southern Mason County a few days after Ulysses S. Grant assumed control of the Union Army. His parents, Gabriel Young and Arminta Bruen, were slaves. When Charles was still a child, his parents moved to Brown County, Ohio, noted for its thriving population of free blacks.

Young arrived at West Point fluent in both German and French after attending high school in Ripley, Ohio.

During the 1860s, Kentucky was known as a "slave-growing state," according to Shellum's biography of Young at West Point, Black Cadet in a White Bastion. The phrase "sold down the river," according to Shellum's book, originated when slaves were shipped down the Ohio River to the Mississippi.

West Point was not easy for Young. He had to do remedial work in mathematics and engineering before graduating in 1889. He ranked 49th out of 49 students in his class. He was commissioned as a subaltern, or additional second lieutenant, in the Tenth Calvary but later transferred to the Ninth Calvary.

Still, his entry into West Point may have been even more of a triumph in its historical context than those of the first two blacks to be admitted, said John Klee, history professor at Maysville Community College, because he attended the school long after Reconstruction, a time when blacks were being afforded more opportunities.

By the time Young attended, the institutional racism against which Young battled all his life had time to again take hold, Klee said.

Why is Young so little known? One reason is that many of his personal papers were left in a shed when a great tornado devastated Xenia, Ohio, on April 3, 1974.

Also, he lived in an era when he had to be keenly aware of crossing the color line. He had to struggle with the prejudices of white enlisted men who didn't want to serve under him and fellow officers who were uncomfortable with him.

It's noted that at one army celebration, then-Lt. George Patton saw Young decline to sit down at a table with white officers, saying that he did not feel well. Patton considered Young's action, taken almost certainly to avoid breaching the color barrier, "chivalrous."

In June, 1918, Young set out of his horse Blacksmith from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. to show the war department that in riding 497 miles, or 31 miles a day, that he was still fit enough to command troops.

He was reinstated and promoted to colonel too late to take an active role in World War I, but was sent on a research mission to Liberia. He died on a reconnaissance mission in Nigeria, on Jan. 8, 1922 of nephritis, a kidney disease. His body was later returned to the United States for burial at Arlington Cemetery.

Despite his disappointment at not rising higher in the army, Young paid it forward to other talented blacks. While he was not the first black general, he helped the man who eventually attained that title, Benjamin Davis.

Shellum notes in Black Cadet in a White Bastion that Young helped Davis prepare for the officer's exam while Davis was a non-commissioned officer in the Ninth Cavalry. Davis went on to become the first black general in the regular Army in 1940. Davis' son, Benjamin Davis Jr., in 1936 became the first black graduate of West Point since Young.

While serving as superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903, Young had the opportunity to have a tree named for him. He instead decided to have a tree named for Booker T. Washington. The tree was forgotten, but was recently located and re-dedicated along with a tree finally being dedicated to Young, according to Shellum.

Although Young was generally gallant, his bitterness about missed opportunities occasionally shone through.

Shellum writes in Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment that in 1919 a black man wrote to Young, seeking his advice on applying to West Point. Young discouraged the young man from embarking on a military career.

"My advice is, don't think of it. If you put one-half of the time, patience, diligence, and 'pep' in any other profession or vocation, you will succeed and get rich but if you go thru the Military Academy it means a dog's life while you are there and for years after you graduate, a pittance of a salary as a subaltern and in the end retirement on a mere competence, which does not pay if you have a little girl in view that wishes to wear diamonds."

Still, Gore said, Young was "phenomenal individual."

"The indignities he suffered were beyond measure," Gore said. "He was being held back at several levels. Yet he carried himself both as an officer and someone who had love and respect for his race."


Want to know more about Young?

■ Brian Shellum's biographies of Young, Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point (Bison Books, $16.95), and Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young (Bison Books, $14.83) are available at Amazon.com.

■ The National Park Service features some details on "Buffalo Soldiers," as the black regiments were called, serving in the national parks. The soldiers got the nickname from the Indians, who compared their dark, curly hair to that of the head of a buffalo. Nps.gov

■ The Texas State Historical Association is a starting point for more information on the Buffalo Soldiers: Tshaonline.org


"The annals of American history are filled with the names of our nation's greatest heroes, yet the name Charles Young is known by remarkably few Americans. ... He carried the torch of equality and claimed nothing but the opportunity to serve his country honorably and equally." — Vincent K. Brooks, brigadier general, United States Army, foreword to Brian Shellum's book Black Cadet in a White Bastion

"So you see you can not always tell the wide reaching influence of a word of cheer to even a black man. God knows how many white ones I have helped because you all helped me. Simply trying to pay the interest on the debt of gratitude, I owe you, that's all."

—a 1915 letter from Charles Young to Colonel Delamere Skerrett, a fellow graduate of the West Point class of 1889

"It was not enough for him to do well. He must always do better; and so much and so conspicuously better, as to disarm the scoundrels that ever trailed him. He lived in the army surrounded by insult and intrigue and yet he set his teeth and kept his soul serene and triumphed." — W.E.B. DuBois on Young


words by and about charles young

"The annals of American history are filled with the names of our nation's greatest heroes, yet the name Charles Young is known by remarkably few Americans. ... He carried the torch of equality and claimed nothing but the opportunity to serve his country honorably and equally."

Vincent K. Brooks, brigadier general, United States Army, foreword to Brian Shellum's book "Black Cadet in a White Bastion"

"So you see you can not always tell the wide reaching influence of a word of cheer to even a black man. God knows how many white ones I have helped because you all helped me. Simply trying to pay the interest on the debt of gratitude, I owe you, that's all."

a 1915 letter from Charles Young to Colonel Delamere Skerrett, a fellow graduate of the West Point class of 1889

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman

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