Army promotes trailblazing black colonel to general a century after his death

Col. Charles Young would have been the first African American brigadier general in U.S. history in 1917 but was forced into retirement to avoid having a black man lead white troops into World War I

WEST POINT – The U.S. military didn’t promote its first African American to the rank of general until 1940, but it should have happened in 1917. That was the year Col. Charles Young was forced into medical retirement to avoid having a black man lead white troops into battle during World War I. Young was in line to be promoted as the first black brigadier general, a final barrier to break through in a trailblazing life which included a post in Tulare County. 

Col. Charles Young

Last month, the U.S. Army posthumously promoted Young to brigadier general, capping a military career and life marked by leadership, dedication to duty and steadfast determination. The event was hosted by Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo on April 29 at the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York, where Young was just the third African American to graduate from the academy in 1889.

“Charles Young was a soldier, an intellectual, a civil rights pioneer, and a man who loved his family deeply,” said Camarillo. “When I think of Charles Young, the word ‘triumph’ comes to mind. He faced unjust and harrowing circumstances that tested him time and again, but he triumphed.”

USMA’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, shared the stage with Camarillo and talked about the hardship and adversity Young faced as he was subjected to prejudice and racism from his fellow cadets.

“Young reflected on those days at West Point, writing that while, in general, his academy experience was a source of heartache for him, the bright spots and fond memories came from those classmates and instructors who showed him friendship and sympathy,” said Williams.

After graduation, Young served honorably in the Army for 38 years, rising from second lieutenant to becoming the nation’s first African American colonel between 1889 and 1917. Born into slavery in Kentucky during the Civil War, Young’s life took him to places where a Black man was rarely welcome. He was the first African American to graduate from the white high school in Ripley, Ohio. In 1903, he was serving as a captain in the cavalry commanding a segregated black company at the Presidio of San Francisco when he received orders to take his prestigious Buffalo Soldiers to Sequoia National Park for the summer where they fought wildfires and wildlife poachers, illegal loggers and worked on the infrastructure of the park. As the first Acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, Young and the 96 men under his command were tasked with extending the wagon road through the park and in one summer built as much roadway as other crews had built in the previous three summers. A giant sequoia tree was later named in his honor near the Auto Log, along the Crescent Meadow / Moro Rock Road.

“Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation,” Col. Young wrote in a report on Oct. 15, 1903.

Although Col. Young could have been promoted to general during his lifetime, the racial sentiment of the day forced his premature medical retirement out of fear of an African American officer leading white troops during World War I. Young was medically retired as a colonel in 1917 but was recalled in 1920 to serve as a military attaché to Liberia for a second time. His service record was distinct and historic during a time of segregation.

“While Charles Young may have been constrained and stifled by the age in which he lived, he did not defer his dreams,” said Camarillo. “His promotion to brigadier general has been a long time delayed, but not denied.”

Camarillo went on to explain why diversity is, and always will be, the Army’s greatest strength. When service members of different races, ethnicities, religions, and other characteristics unite for a common mission, the result is a stronger and more effective force. He explained that Young was able to reach so many milestones, including becoming the first African American colonel, during a time when many deemed that accomplishment to be impossible.

Renotta Young, the great niece of Col. Young, became an active advocate for her uncle’s promotion nearly 50 years and culminated with the Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth’s approval for the honorary promotion on Oct. 6, 2021. She expressed that the Young family does not desert their goals and dreams, no matter how long it may take.

“I was deeply moved when I was informed that the Secretary of the Army approved the promotion of my uncle,” said Young. “Charles Young, by all accounts, was a renaissance man and that is what resonates with people the most. I hope the Army will continue to use this story to make sure their ranks reflect the diversity of our nation.”

Due to the relentless efforts of everyone who supported the Young family to ensure that this well-deserved promotion finally came to fruition, Col. Young’s legacy will live on. His lifelong commitment to serving provided a tangible and significant impact on the Army and national defense.

“We remember Col. Charles Young as a leader of character who lived honorably, led honorably, and demonstrated excellence in all his endeavors,” said Williams. “He holds an honored place on West Point’s Long Gray Line and still inspires generations of Soldiers and officers today as an exemplar of Army values and the West Point ideals of duty, honor, and country.”

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