Army posthumously promotes first black colonel to one-star general

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The Army has awarded the first black colonel in the service a posthumous honorary promotion, raising him to the rank of brigadier general more than 100 years after his death, Army Times has learned.

Colonel Charles Young’s career, which spanned from his graduation from West Point in 1889 to his forced medical retirement in 1917 which prevented him from fighting in World War I, “has broken ground again and again”, has Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said in a statement to Army Times confirming the promotion.

An experienced cavalry officer who was wounded in Liberia in 1912, Young was declared medically unfit to command the brigade—and promoted to brigadier general—in 1917. This was despite General John J. Pershing’s recommendation after Young demonstrated his prowess in the 1916 American incursion into Mexico.

Wormuth acknowledged that “discriminatory practices not only held him back but forced him into retirement”.

Wormuth expressed pride that “the army has righted this wrong [recently] with a long-awaited posthumous and honorary promotion. She will preside over a promotion ceremony “at West Point this spring — where her Army career began as the Academy’s third black graduate.”

The promotion went into effect Nov. 1, 2021, Wormuth said, and Young’s descendants learned about it in January.

It comes after decades of lobbying by Young’s descendants and black organizations like the Omega Psi Phi Brotherhoodwho made him an honorary member in 1912.

“We are euphoric… It really happened. It’s almost like a miracle,” Renotta Young, the officer’s family member, said in a phone interview with Army Times. “It was a mistake that was eventually corrected.”

Young’s pioneering career and legacy

Charles Young’s military career began when he was commissioned to West Point. In 1889 he became the third black man to graduate and become an army officer.

He served as one of the American “buffalo troopers” in the predominantly black 9th Cavalry in Nebraska and Utah early in his career.

Young’s next assignment was as a professor of military science at Wilberforce University near Dayton, Ohio — one of the nation’s oldest historically black institutions. There he met intellectuals like WEB Du Bois.

The de Young family home in Ohio became a National Historic Landmark in 1974. It was added to the National Park Service as the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in 2013.

Young commanded a battalion of volunteers from Ohio who remained in the United States during the Spanish–American War of 1898, but he deployed to the Philippines in 1901 as commander of I Troop, 9th Cavalry, where he saw fighting against local insurgents.

After returning to the United States, Young will go down in history as first black superintendent of a national park when he accepted a short-term assignment as chief of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks in Northern California.

In the decade before World War I, Young completed two squadron commands and served as a defense attaché, first in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, then in the East African country Liberia. West, in 1912. He was shot in the arm and injured there. an exchange of fire between Liberian troops and a rebel tribe.

Young, then a major, completed his tour of Liberia in 1915 and returned to the United States as a leading figure in the black community. He received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1916 for his work at help organize and train the Liberian police. The medal is currently showing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

His profile rose even further after his successful stint commanding the 2nd Squadron, 10th Cavalry, during the Army’s punitive expedition that invaded Mexico in response to the deadly raids of guerrilla leader Pancho Villa.

Young’s troops defeated a contingent of Villa’s forces on March 31, 1916, and also fought Mexican government soldiers the following month to save another American cavalry detachment that was surrounded.

After his successes in Mexico, Young was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was on Pershing’s shortlist of leaders who merited command of the brigade based on their performance in the expedition. He was promoted to colonel – becoming the first black officer to reach that rank – and underwent a medical examination to assess him for command.

Doctors found his kidneys were likely damaged, but two medical boards recommended the problems be removed to allow the experienced leader to fight in America’s biggest conflict since the Civil War.

Secretary of War Newton Baker suggested medical retirement instead, and the historical record suggests that a Mississippi senator complained to President Woodrow Wilson that white officers had been forced to serve under the command of a black man. Young’s medical condition represented a practical way to solve this problem, argued historian David Colley.

Black organizations like the NAACP protested the move, and in an effort to prove his fitness, Young traveled nearly 500 miles on horseback from Wilberforce to Washington in 1918.

He was returned to active service in November of that year, but ultimately received no command or promotion overseas. He instead led a training unit, then later returned to Liberia in his former role as attaché.

Young fell ill while serving in Nigeria in late 1921, and he died in Lagos on January 8, 1922. His body was returned to the United States about a year later and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Renotta Young, one of his descendants, describes him as a “Renaissance man” who “persevered and loved his country”. She helps run a foundation which honors his life and preserves his legacy while supporting youth development and other educational programs.

Renotta Young, whose grandfather was the officer’s first cousin and confidante at Wilberforce, wants the military to also continue to make progress in improving the black troop experience. She said in her phone interview with Army Times that “a lot of the things he went through still exist,” like base names that honor Confederate troops and a military justice system that disproportionately punishes black troops.

She hopes “that this [overdue honor] will ‘prompt’ Army leaders to ‘recognize that it is for the good of society to identify individuals who can and will make a difference without any aura of discrimination’.

This story contains information that originally appeared in an article by David Colley in the March 2013 issue of Military History Magazine – a sister publication of Army Times.

Davis Winkie is a staff reporter covering the military. He originally joined Military Times as a reporting intern in 2020. Prior to journalism, Davis worked as a military historian. He is also a human resources officer in the Army National Guard.

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