Kentucky is proud to be the home of the most decorated African-American veteran of the U.S. military.
Colonel Charles Young was a 19th-century military officer and diplomat. He was the third African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy, the first black US National Park Superintendent, first black military attaché, first black man to achieve the rank of colonel in the United States Army, and highest-ranking black officer in the regular army until his death in 1922.
On Feb. 11, 2020, Governor Andy Beshear will honor Col. Charles Young by promoting him to Brigadier General in the State Guard. The event will take place at 11 a.m. in the Capitol Rotunda.
Young was born into slavery at the end of the Civil War in Mays Lick, Kentucky, near Maysville. He entered West Point on competitive examination in 1884, and quickly showed a flair for languages. He graduated in 1889 as a 2nd Lieutenant after enduring years of extreme hazing and harassment because of the color of his skin.
He volunteered for service in the Spanish American War and was given command of an all-black regiment, but the war ended before they deployed. Nevertheless, he was the first African-American to command such a large unit of soldiers.
He served at posts in the West and became the first African-American Superintendent of a National Park. He served overseas in Mexico, Haiti, Liberia and the Philippines, reaching the rank of Colonel by 1917 – the first African-American to do so. He taught military science at colleges and wrote a prescient book about how democratic societies affect the military service of minorities.
But his deserved deployment in World War I and promotion to Brigadier General was denied to him because of his race. While he always commanded black troops, as Brigadier General he would have had white officers under his command. Southern officers vociferously objected, and the military denied Young his final service.
Young’s story reflects both the obstacles facing African-American service members and veterans and how extraordinary efforts and determination can achieve respect and overcome bigotry.
On Nov. 11, 2018, Veterans Day, city and state leaders unveiled the Colonel Charles Young Veterans Memorial in the Russell neighborhood of Louisville. It stands at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage at 18th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
In this Black History Month, it is appropriate that we honor Colonel Charles Young by honoring our African-American veterans still serving their nation today.
Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Ret.)