The Pentagon Memorial overlooks the Arlington National Cemetery, where military casualties from each of the nation’s wars are interred, ranging from the pre-Civil War dead through military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of the more than 300,000 troops who rest there, the now obscure Col. Charles Young was remembered for his military accomplishments at the cemetery on June 1.
“This is recognition of Colonel Young in death that he should have gotten in life,” said Charles Blatcher III, chairman of The National Veterans Coalition, in remarks made at the ceremony before a crowd of more than 100 people. “We are here to honor a true American hero.”
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif, has introduced a bill in Congress to posthumously promote Col. Young – an African American who achieved many firsts in his military career before he died on Jan. 8, 1922 – to the rank of brigadier general.
Col. Young was born in a log cabin in 1864 to parents who had been held in bondage as slaves. Despite the difficulties of growing up in America with odds against him because of racial prejudice, Young completed his early education. He eventually applied to United States Military Academy at West Point in 1884 where he received the second highest score on the entrance examination. He went on to graduate in 1889, becoming the third African American to graduate from the military academy.
Following his graduation, Col. Young served 28 years in the United States Army, enlisting first in the Ninth Calvary then the Tenth Calvary, both African-American regiments.
His service record was exemplary – becoming the first African American appointed as a superintendent of a national park, presiding over Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. He also was the first Black soldier to be appointed military attaché, the first Black promoted to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel, and he had combat commands during the Philippine Insurrection and General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition.
Col. Young, the highest ranking African American in the United States Army at the outset of First World War, was not allowed to serve and forced into an early retirement because he was misdiagnosed with high blood pressure. To prove he was physically fit to serve, Col. Young rode horseback from his home in Ohio to Washington, D.C., which took 16 days. Five days before the end of the war in 1917, he was reinstated. He served as military attaché in Liberia.
Col. Young later died of a kidney infection while in Nigeria. He was 58.
“He did not approach life on the basis of seeing what he could get out of this nation.
He did not eternally ask others to give,” said Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Jr. during a eulogy for Col. Young in New York City, 1923. “He gave himself. He approached life with the single purpose of seeing what he could do for this nation.”
Congresswoman Lee said Col. Young did not receive the recognition that he deserved because of his race.
“Over the course of his … career Colonel Young distinguished himself numerous times as an administrator, as a soldier and as a combat officer,” said Rep. Lee in a written statement. “Unfortunately, he lived during a time when segregation was the law of the land and opportunities were systematically denied to African Americans.
Despite being a highly qualified officer, he was prevented from leading combat troops during the First World War, and his promotion opportunities may have been limited by his race.
“As the first African American to attain the rank of colonel, Charles Young was a trailblazer. That is why it is so important that we honor his service by authorizing a posthumous promotion to the rank of brigadier general.”