The Old Soldier who wouldn't surrender
He heard the word “impossible” the day he was born. But Colonel Charles Young, the son of freed slaves, spent his life proving that he was a winner in every sense of the word. Born in dire poverty in Kentucky in 1864, Charles Young overcame extreme prejudice and became the third African-American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. This article appeared in "Ebony Magazine" in 1974.
The reaction among blacks was stormy and resentful. "Give us Charlie Young and we'll bring back the Kaiser!" was the slogan of the day. Editorials in black newspapers blasted the War Department for its hypocrisy. They pointed out that the record of Co!. Charles Young was equal in many cases superior-to those of white officers holding similar rank. But their protests went begging for official sympathy.
Cause of this furor was a typical story of American injustice. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Col. Charles Young was the Army's highest ranking black officer. He was also the only black officer serving who had graduated from West Point. It was hoped, therefore, that accelerated wartime promotions would soon give him the rank of brigadier general.
But the Army had no intention of letting this happen. Seventy-five percent of the Army's officers were white Southerners. Officers hip, they felt, was a "gentleman's profession" and they were opposed to Col. Young. Moreover, Young's position as a commanding officer-his promotion aside-had become an embarrassing situation. Southern white officers then attached to his command did not appreciate serving under a black commanding officer. Ways were explored in the highest quarters to arrange for his removal. The reason given was "high blood pressure."
As revealed in letters, only recently made public, the Department of "War was profoundly disturbed over Young's command of the black Tenth Cavalry Regiment, which included white officers. Even President Wood row Wilson, in his private correspondence, became personally involved in the "Col. Young question," repeatedly seeking ways in which to alleviate the tension.
Young himself was in a curious situation. He could not openly attack his superiors, for such an act would destroy his chance for recognition. He did indicate his feelings, however, and far more dramatically than any shouted words of protest. He rode a horse from Xenia, Ohio, to Washington, D. C., to prove his fitness, thus contributing much more to the cause of an integrated Army than any other man had ever done before him.
Young had worked hard to achieve his position. The son of former slaves-- his father was a Civil War veteran-- he was born in a log cabin at Mayslick, Ky., on March 12, 1864, but grew to adulthood in Ripley, Ohio. His public schooling was reinforced by his maternal grandmother, who became his tutor, and young Charles became a teacher. In 1884, at the age of 20, he responded to an ad in a paper in the town for entry examinations for West Point candidates. Young placed second and was awarded an appointment. It was only after arriving at the Academy, however, that he received his real test.
Classmates jeered him as the "load of coal." He was ostracized and the few references made to him were always insulting. When men were being assigned to various phases of the work, for example, the officer of the day would ask contemptuously: "Who's going on this nigger detail?" Young, determined to survive the torments, refused to throw in the towel. And after four years' work he had become Second Lieutenant Young-- only the third black person ever to graduate  from the Academy.
At first the young officer was given an assignment with the black Ninth Cavalry Regiment in Nebraska and Utah, and when the Spanish American War broke out, saw training duty at Camp Algers, Va. It was while in the South that an incident arose. A rebellious white soldier refused to salute him. His commanding officer found it out and accosted the soldier in the presence of Young. The latter was commanded to remove his coat and place it on a chair. The soldier was then ordered to salute the coat. Young was then ordered to put on the coat and the soldier commanded to continue to salute it.
When the war was over Young went back West, and, as a staff officer at Fort Duchesne, Utah, according to records, he settled a dispute involving Indians and sheep herders. It was during this duty with the black Ninth Regiment that he made the acquaintance of a Sgt. Maj. Benjamin O. Davis, whom he took under wing and persuaded to become an officer. Davis eventually became a brigadier general-- the first black person to achieve general officer rank.
Between 1901 and 1904, the then Capt. Young was given a number of assignments in the Philippine Islands and in San Francisco. Then in 1904 he was sent into Haiti on a rather ticklish assignment: the gathering of material relating to military activity.
Haiti was in a state of almost constant revolution. America, interested in seeing a stable government in power, was anxious to secure maps of the tiny republic. Young was chosen to produce these maps from personal observation-working in secret-and return with them to Washington. The job was risky and his life was in constant danger from warring political factions. In spite of his efforts, however, the mission ended in disaster. While Young was away on an excursion into the countryside, a clerk in his employ reputedly stole the material and sold it to the Haitians. Embarrassed, Young was relieved of his duties and returned to the States.
Young's status in the Army never went to his head. He used to say, derisively, that wearing a full-dress uniform was "putting on the dog." To him, efficiency was the important thing. In the cavalry he worked his men hard, drove his horses to the limits of endurance. It was a common joke in Army circles that Young's men could not help looking healthy-- and his horses always lean-because they were never given a chance to put on weight.
To a friend who was preparing to join the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, but was a bit apprehensive about how to go about it, Col. Young once wrote: "Get a good life insurance policy, with your family as beneficiary. Bring your Bible and yourself."
Although hard as nails on the military scene, Young was in private life a devoted husband and father to his wife, Ada, his son, Charles Jr., and his daughter, Marie. He loved the simple pleasures of home and family. He mastered several languages and was interested in music, playing and composing for the violin, piano and guitar. He liked being with his friends, some of whom formed a veritable black Who's Who of the day: W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin O. Davis, Booker T. Washington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
"He had a warm feeling for people and enjoyed having a good time," his widow remembered. "He could fill a whole house with laughter and merriment! Everyone in town would know when he returned from a trip. He was just effervescent. That's the only way I can describe him."
Ordered to Africa in 1911, Young assisted in the creation of a frontier force for the Republic of Liberia. "Due to Maj. Young's watchful efforts," Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote later, "much good has been accomplished in patrolling the British and French boundaries, in the construction of roads, and, to a great extent, in preventing uprisings of native Liberian tribes ... Maj. Young has been found most valuable."
But in the process of being valuable, Young almost lost his life. Ambushed with 500 Liberian troops by an unfriendly tribe from the country's interior, he was seriously wounded. A tribesman, using a primitive weapon, had fired a rusty two-inch leg from a cast-iron pot into his arm. The lack of immediate medical attention brought on an attack of the dreaded black water fever-malaria in its worst form.
Young survived all these ordeals without complaint. In 1916, during a border dispute with Gen. Pancho Villa, American forces went deep into Mexico on a punitive expedition. Young, then commander of the black Tenth Cavalry was included among the forces. "He was a legend by then," recalls a fellow black officer, the now retired Col. West A. Hamilton. "I never met him personally. He had gone into Mexico; I was stationed in Arizona. But he was the hero of our troops."
His widow once recalled: "He was never one to talk about hardships in the line of duty. He always seemed to accept what came. When the government turned in the medical report on him, all he said was: 'Every full-blooded American who loves his country and his people naturally would have some high blood pressure.'"
Unfortunately for Young, and for other black soldiers, such devotion to country was not always reciprocated-particularly at a time when an impending World War had raised the possibility of his promotion to general officer.
Even as a colonel, his position had been an awkward one. He was deeply resented by many whites in his command. In a newly published book, Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973 (Johnson Publishing Co.), author Robert Ewell Greene discusses several of the ways in which government officials attempted to deal with Col. Young. Much of the material has only recently become available.
President Wood row Wilson sent an informal letter to then Secretary of War Newton D. Baker concerning complaints that he had gotten from a member of the Congress, Sen. Sharpe Williams of Mississippi. A white lieutenant on duty with the Tenth found it deeply "distasteful" to take orders from a black man. The President inquired if the complainant could be transferred and replaced by a man "who would not have equally intense prejudices."
The secretary responded about a day or two later: "The situation is, of course, very embarrassing, but I am endeavoring to meet it by using Colonel Young in connection with the training of colored officers for the new army at Des Moines, Iowa. It seems likely that I will be able to tide over the difficulty in that way for at least a while." Wilson then replied to the complaining Sen. Williams that "the Lieutenant Colonel referred to [Young] will' not in fact have command because he is in ill health and likely when he gets better himself to be transferred to some other service."
The correspondence, continuing for several days, was concluded with a message from Baker to the President: "Prior to your note to me the Lieutenant Colonel Young was ordered before a retiring board on the report of the surgeons that he was incapacitated for duty by reason of Bright's disease. Meanwhile, the adjutant general of the State of Ohio has urgently requested his services with the colored command of that state. As soon as the proceedings of the retiring board have been completed and pending final action on them by the War Department, Colonel Young will be directed to report to the adjutant general of the state of Ohio for the above duty. This, 1 think, will remove the cause of trouble so far as 1 now understand it."
But Young was not a man to be dispensed with so easily. He reasoned, shrewdly, that in demonstrating to the nation the true state of his health, he'd expose the position of the government as a false one. So one morning, early in June 1918, he saddled a bay mare named Dolly, packed a saddlebag with lunch and put on his uniform.
"It's time for my people-- my brethren-- to know that I am physically fit," he explained to his wife. His plan, which he had considered for several days, was to ride Dolly from his hometown, Xenia, Ohio, to Washington, D.C ., nearly 500 miles away. It was a ride which would have taxed the physical capabilities of a much younger man, but Young, at 54, was undaunted.
Young covered the distance in 16 days, stopping for the night at small towns along the way so his horse could be quartered and fed. The weather was good and he suffered no undue exposure. The unpleasantness he did suffer resulted from contacts with prejudiced people.
At one town he entered there was no provision for black travelers. Young asked if he could spend the night on the porch of a house near a stable where white townspeople had agreed to quarter his horse. He was refused at first, but then the owner of the house gave in-- adding that he guessed it would be all right since Young was leaving early the next morning.
At another hamlet, in Virginia, a few hours' drive from the capital, Young was refused lodging again-- this time by the black proprietress of a small resort hotel. She considered her establishment too respectable for the dusty, road-weary Young. "You can't stay here," she told him. "1 have some very important colored guests coming from Washington. There isn't enough room for you."
Young asked if she would serve him a meal before he proceeded further. She hesitated, then said it would be all right if he left before her guests arrived. But in the middle of the meal, the guests turned up. When they saw Young, they exclaimed: "Why, here's Charlie! Good old Charliel"
The guests, it turned out, were friends of Col. and Mrs. Young. They knew of his ride from the headline coverage it was receiving in the black press and lost no time in plying him with questions. The proprietress, apologizing profusely, found him a room at once.
In one town Young was allowed to spend the night at a white roadside inn. The town, oddly enough, was one which advertised: "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you here!" As he sat before an open fire that evening, several of the assembled whites asked him who he was and where he was going.
"What an injustice," one remarked after he told them. "What can we do to help you?"
"Nothing to help me." Young said, "but if other Negro soldiers stop here, I wish you'd give them lodging for the night."
Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Young rode up to the old State, War and Navy Building for a personal audience with the secretary of war, the man who., he hoped, would put his wrongs to right.
Emmett J. Scott, the black special assistant to. the secretary of war, was anxiously awaiting Young's arrival. He took him to Baker's office at once.
"Col. Young," Baker said after they shook hands, "I've been hearing a great deal about you."
"I imagine that's very true, Mr. Secretary," Young said.
Baker paused, clearing his throat, then went an to discuss the editorial campaign that black newspapers were waging against the department. "I can't say the charges against us are justified," he remarked. "Our medical boards, after all, are composed of just and fair men. But colored people are so mistreated, I can easily see how they might be used by agitators ... "
Baker talked an in this way for about ten or so minutes. Then he came to the point. "Col. Young, I'd like to ask you a question. Would you prefer combatant or non-combatant service?"
Young clicked his heels and saluted. "Combatant!"
"We'll see what we can do," Baker concluded the interview. Baker's promise to look into the matter stirred the black press to new levels of interest. Young was physically fit. Young was qualified for a generalship. Why wasn't Young given a chance to. serve overseas? Washington officials plugged their ears and looked the other way. Finally, in a rather inept attempt to end the whole furor, they restored Col. Young to active duty and assigned him to non-combatant service at Camp Grant, Ill. Conveniently, the war was now almost over.
Young was eventually given "overseas duty." However, he was returned to Liberia to assist in a training program there.
W. E. B. Du Bois, writing later in Crisis, asked an embarrassing question: "If Charles Young's blood pressure was too high far him to go to France, why was it not too high far him to be sent to even mare arduous duty in the swamps of West Africa?"
The question went unanswered. But late in December of 1921, during a sojourn in Nigeria, Young was admitted to. a hospital in Lagos for the treatment of nephritis, medically reported as "acute exacerbation of an old-standing complaint." He died there on Jan. 8, 1922, was given a military funeral, and was buried.
About a year and a half later his body was exhumed and returned to the States for final services at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a solemn occasion, drawing black Americans from almost every walk of life. Col. Hamilton, who is now 88, headed the parade and funeral committee. He recalls of the ceremony:
"There must have been a hundred thousand people along the sidewalk. All the schools were closed and children lined the whole route of the parade and the remains were driven by."
But again it was Du Bois, in remarks in Crisis, who was able to. put the "Col. Young affair" in some perspective. "If the United States government retired a sick man," he wrote, "it murdered him by detailing him afterward to Africa. God rest Col. Young's sickened soul, but give our souls no rest if we let the truth concerning him drop, overlaid with lies . . . "
by Lerone Bennett, Jr. for Ebony Magazine. November 1974, pp. 85-95.
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