Exhibit honoring Col. Charles Young opens at Memorial Hall May 17
The National Coalition of Black Veteran Organizations is proud to present the Col. Charles Young bronze maquette (a miniature statue) in honor of our country’s first black colonel in the U.S. Armed Forces.
A temporary exhibit will be on display at Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St. The opening ceremony will be held from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday, May 17. Sponsors are Michael J. Williams, Charles Blatcher III, the Coalition of Black Veterans, Rockford Public School District, Ethnic Heritage Museum, the Jefferson-Horton American Legion Post 340, VFW, Rockford Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, NAACP, Rockford Ministers Fellowship and Veterans Memorial Hall.
The Coalition of Black Veterans, in conjunction with the African-American Gallery of the Ethnic Heritage Museum, has been working diligently to get Col. Young an honorary promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. The bronze maquette serves as a model for the monument the Coalition has been working to erect in Washington, D.C., and was designed by renowned sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez. Erected, the work will stand as the first depiction of an African-American military officer on horseback in our nation’s capital.
Charles Young was born in 1864 to enslaved parents in a small town, Mayslick, Ky., but he grew up a free man. He was the third African-American to graduate from West Point, the first black U.S. national park superintendent, the first black military attache, the first black to achieve the rank of colonel, and the highest-ranking black officer in the United States Army until his death in 1922.
After graduating from West Point in 1889 with a commission as a second lieutenant, Young was first assigned to the Tenth U.S. Cavalry Regiment. He was later reassigned to the Ninth U.S. Cavalry Regiment, and served 28 years mainly with black troops, the Ninth and Tenth regiments known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” \
Beginning in 1894 as a lieutenant, Young was assigned to Wilberforce College in Ohio, a historically black college, to lead the new Military Sciences Department established under a federal grant. When the Spanish-American War broke out, he was promoted temporarily to the rank of major of Volunteers in May 1898 and commanded a battalion in the Ninth Ohio Infantry Regiment. Young and the regiment served throughout the war but were not sent overseas. He was mustered out of the volunteers on Jan. 28, 1899 and reverted to his Regular Army rank of first lieutenant. He was promoted to captain in the Ninth Cavalry Regiment on Feb. 2, 1901.
In 1903, Young served as captain of a black company at the Presidio of San Francisco. When appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant national parks, he was the first black superintendent of a national park. His greatest achievement was road construction, which helped to improve the underdeveloped park and enable more visitors to travel within it. Captain Young and his troops completed a wagon road to the Giant Forest, home of the world’s largest trees. At the end of the summer, Young was transferred Nov. 2, 1903, and reassigned as the troop commander of the Tenth Cavalry at the Presidio. In his final report on Sequoia Park to the Secretary of the Interior, he recommended the government acquire privately-held lands there, to secure more park area for future generations. This recommendation was noted in legislation to that purpose introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1904, the Military Intelligence Department assigned Young as one of the first military attaches, serving in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He served there for three years. In 1908,Young was sent to the Philippines to join his Ninth Regiment and command a squadron of two troops. In 1912, he was assigned as military attache in Liberia, where he served for three years. Also in 1912, Young published The Military Morale of Nations and Races, a remarkably prescient study of the cultural sources of military power. In 1916, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Young the Springarn Medal, given annually to the African-American demonstrating the highest achievement and contributions.
During the 1916 Punilivt Expedition by the United States into Mexico, then-Major Young commanded the 2nd squadron of the Tenth U.S. Cavalary with General Pershing. While leading a cavalry pistol charge against Pancho Villa’s forces at Agua Caliente, he routed the opposing forces without losing a single man. His swift action saved the wounded General Beltran and his men of the 13th Cavalry, who had been outflanked.
Due to his exceptional leadership of the Tenth Cavalry in Mexico, Young was promoted to lieutenant colonel in September 1916. He was assigned as commander of Fort Huachuca, the Arizona base of the Tenth Cavalry, until mid-1917. He was the first African-American to achieve the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army.
When World War I broke out, Young might have gained more promotions but for the entrenched resistance among white officers, especially those from the South. A lieutenant who served under Young complained to the War Department and was told by Secretary of War Newton Baker to “either do his duty or resign.” But a Mississippi senator brought the matter to President Woodrow Wilson, who overruled Baker and had the lieutenant transferred. (In 1913, Wilson had segregated federal offices and established discriminatory hiring.)
Baker considered sending Young to Fort Des Moines, an officer training camp for African- Americans. But he realized that if Young were allowed to fight in Europe commanding black troops, he would become eligible for promotion to brigadier general, and it would be impossible to avoid having white officers subordinate to him. To prevent this, the War Department withdrew Young from active duty, claiming it was due to his high blood pressure.
In May 1917, Young appealed to Theodore Roosevelt for support of his application for reinstatement. Roosevelt was in the midst of his campaign to form a “volunteer division” for early service in France. Roosevelt planned to recruit at least one, perhaps two regiments of African-American troops for the division—which he had not told President Wilson or Secretary of War Baker. He wrote to Young, offering him command of one of the prospective regiments and promised him “caarte blanche” in appointing staff and line officers. But Wilson refused Roosevelt permission to organize the division.
Young returned to Wilberforce University where he was a professor of military science through most of 1918. Nov. 6, 1918, after traveling by horseback from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. to prove his physical fitness, Young was reinstated on active duty in the Army as a full colonel. Baker did not rescind his order that Young be forcibly retired. In 1919, Young was reassigned as military attache to Liberia.
Young died Jan. 8, 1922 while on a reconnaissance mission in Nigeria. He was buried in Lagos, Nigeria, with military honors rendered by British troops, but on the insistence of his family, his body was exhumed and returned to the United States, where he was given a full military funeral and buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
According to Coalition Chairman Charles Blatcher III, it is most fitting to bring the maquette to Rockford. Col. Young has a strong connection to the Rockford community. In 1918, Young was garrisoned at Camp Grant. Altogether, his military career spanned 33 years of segregated service. He was the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. Armed Forces from 1894 until his death in 1922.
Keynote speaker for the event is Charles Blatcher III, coalition chairman and former resident of Rockford, Ill. The Col. Charles Young maquette will remain on display at the Rockford Veterans Memorial Hall through the month of June.