I cannot guess the number of times I have passed the Charles Young Center on East Third Street, never once pausing long enough to research the man behind the name. I just assumed the center was a nod to a local resident who had contributed something positive to the community.
Col. Charles Young was all that and much more.
Here's what I found when I researched him: Young was the third African-American to graduate from West Point, the first to attain the rank of colonel, and he was the highest-ranking black officer in the military at the time of his death in 1922.
When his body was transported from Africa and interred in Arlington National Cemetery a year later, his eulogy was delivered by author and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois.
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Charles Blatcher III, chairman of The National Veterans Coalition, believes Young "should have been the first black brigadier general," and he and coalition members are pushing to have Young promoted to that rank posthumously.
That effort is one of several that have been introduced in the House of Representatives honoring Young. Another would name a road for him and the Buffalo Soldiers he led from the Presidio in San Francisco to Sequoia National Park; another would have Young's home in Xenia, Ohio, designated a national park.
Weaving throughout all of that is an effort in Mason County to restore the log cabin where Young was born.
Why hadn't I ever taken the time to learn more about the man before recently? One of my sons has played basketball several times in the building named for him here, and I attended a celebration there after a friend's funeral. It is only now, after the building sits unused, pushed aside for the newer, more vibrant William Wells Brown Community Center, that I learn about a Kentuckian we all should honor.
Young was born in Mays Lick on March 12, 1864. When Young was small, his parents, former slaves, moved across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, where his father opened a livery business.
After graduating from high school, Young taught in the segregated schools there for three years before taking a competitive exam for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He entered in 1884.
By all accounts, his was a lonely life. According to the National Park Service's biography of Young, "Later he would remark that the worst he could wish for an enemy would be to make him a black man and send him to West Point."
In 1903 he had reached the rank of captain in the calvary, commanding Buffalo Soldiers at the Presidio of San Francisco. He was commanded to take his troops to Sequoia National Park, which was then 13 years old but lacking good roads, and build those roads. In the previous three years, only 5 miles of roadway had been completed. By the end of the summer, Young's troops had completed five more, allowing wagons to reach the area. Those roads, although much improved, still exist.
Young served as attaché in Haiti and Liberia, commanded troops in battles in Mexico and earned the respect of Brig. Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing.
As World War I began, Young assumed his rank as lieutenant colonel which allowed him to command soldiers in Europe. White officers who would be under his command complained. Soon, Young was forced to retire because of a medical disability — high blood pressure.
After he retired on Jan. 22, 1917, he was promoted to colonel. But that wasn't good enough for Young. He rode on horseback from his home in Ohio to Washington, D.C., a journey of 16 days, covering 500 miles, to prove how fit he was. Following that, he was sent to be an adviser to the adjutant general of Ohio.
Prominent blacks and whites protested that move. On Nov. 6, 1918, five days before the end of the war, Young was called to active duty with the Ohio National Guard.
In 1919, the state department sent him as an attaché to Liberia, where he had barely survived a case of black water fever — a complication of malaria — in 1913. Young died of kidney failure while visiting Lagos, Nigeria, in 1922. The British military buried him there with full honors.
After Young's death, DuBois wrote: "His second going to Africa, after a terrible attack of black water fever, was suicide. He knew it. His wife knew it. His friends knew it. They sent him there because he was one of the very best officers in the service and if he had gone to Europe he could not have been denied the stars of a general."
Blatcher agrees and that's why he has been trying to get Congress to promote Young.
"The military is asking for proof he was discriminated against," he said. "This is an argument against reason. Based on the era and the Jim Crow laws, it is almost a no-brainer that he didn't get equal treatment."
Meanwhile, people in Mason County are trying to draw enough attention to Young's birthplace to restore the cabin.
"What we are trying to do is get it designated on the national register," said historian Jerry Gore. "It's on the state registry.
"The biggest push though, is to keep the cabin where it is or move it to a place where it will be secured for time to come," said Gore. The front and one side of the cabin are still standing but the back and other side are gone; supports keep the cabin from falling down.
"It's in dire need of restoration," Blatcher said. "I want to raise national attention to direct resources there."
The Charles Young American Legion Post 165 placed a historic marker at the site in 1955.
The Young Center in Lexington was built in the 1930s, becoming the first indoor center for African-Americans. Now it sits empty, as all activities have been transferred to William Wells Brown. City officials haven't decided how the building will be used, but there are no plans to demolish it.
Jerry Hancock, director of the Division of Parks and Recreation, said a minimum temperature is being maintained in the building, but a lot of work needs to be done to bring it up to snuff.
"It is terribly antiquated," Hancock said. "It doesn't serve the youth of that community to try to exercise there when half a mile away there is a gorgeous facility."
Still, to have people in Lexington choose to honor a military hero with the first indoor recreational facility for black people shows how well-respected Young was.
"He had a great following for him to be honored like that," Hancock said. "It served a good purpose, but it is going to take a few bucks" to restore it.
My hope is that Young will be featured through legislation on the national landscape and that money will be found locally to shore up buildings that pay homage to him as a son of this state.