WILBERFORCE, Ohio—On Feb. 12, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced legislation to make the Wilberforce, Ohio home of Colonel Charles Young part of the National Park System. On April 6, state and national dignitaries and descendants of Col. Young gathered in Wilberforce to dedicate an historic marker to commemorate the life and legacy of Young, who made history as one of the Army’s famed Buffalo Soldiers and as an overall compelling figure in the annals of American history. Young was the third black graduate of West Point, the nation’s first black military attaché to another country and the first black man to attain the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. Among those relatives present at the ceremony honoring his memory was Fort Wayne’s own Judith Green.
“He’s my fourth cousin,” said Green, who long has been aware of the late Col. Young’s role in history, but recently was surprised that her ancestor had been slated for national honors.
The history of Col. Young has been passed down through generations of her family, she explained, her grandfather on her dad’s side being the first person to tell her about their famed relative.
According to historic records, Col. Young’s grandfather was a runaway slave who made two attempts—the second being successful—to escape slavery.
“His name is Elisha Young. It was in Kentucky. He went from Kentucky to Canada,” said Green. “The first time he ran away, him and his wife and the two children got caught. So they were returned to Kentucky. Elisha’s wife, Charlotte decided she didn’t want to run again and stayed in Kentucky with their two children, but she told Elisha to go and seek his freedom.”
Like many who escaped slavery back in the 1800s, Young changed his name to stay hidden.
“Elisha then became John Green. That’s where the name difference comes in. Originally, all the Greens were Youngs,” explained Judith Green. “He remarried after he went to Canada. He married a Native American woman and had a family with her and those children have the name of Green.”
One of those children was Simon Green.
“Simon Green and Amos, Elisha’s first son with Charlotte, are brothers. Simon is my paternal grandfather’s father and Amos is Charles Young’s father so that makes them first cousins. That’s how the relationship comes in,” explained Green.
“My grandfather, he used to talk about Col. Young and I used to ask him, ‘Well, who is Col. Young?’ and he would go into the story about the runaway slave and I was more interested in the runaway slave than the military.”
Green’s grandfather told her that Elisha Young’s grandson by his son Amos, was Charles Young, who became very powerful in the U.S. Army at a time when it was almost unheard of for black men to rise to great military heights in the U.S.
In 1866, the U.S. Congress established six all-black military regiments to patrol the western territories after the Civil War, particularly during the so-called “Indian Wars.” Legend has it that because of their dark, curly hair, which resembled that of the sacred buffalo, Native Americans referred to the black soldiers as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
According to a brochure produced by the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center Of The Ohio Historical Society, Charles Young, who at an early age proved to be a gifted intellect, secured a spot in the West Point military academy, but because of segregation, was not allowed to command white troops, despite graduating as a commissioned 2nd lieutenant in 1889. So, he was assigned to the 9th Cavalry at Fort Robinson, Neb. He eventually was transferred to Fort Duchesne, Utah, where he mentored the then Sgt. Major Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who would go on to become the first black man to attain the rank of general in the U.S. Army.
From 1889 to 1907, Young served at various western posts, earning the rank of captain. In 1904, he was named military attaché to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the first time a black man had ever served in such a post. Some eight years later, he served in the same post to Liberia. He also “served with distinction” in the Philippine-American War, winning praise for his military prowess and courage in combat. He won similar accolades serving in the Punitive Expedition in Mexico, particularly at the Battle of Agua Caliente. While serving later at the Presidio in San Francisco, Calif., Young and his Buffalo Soldiers were sent to the Sequoia and General Grant national parks, making Young the first black man to serve as superintendent of a national park.
He was promoted to major in 1912 and lt. colonel in 1916.
The brochure goes on to explain his later career:
“On the eve of World War I, Young was the highest ranking African-American officer in the U.S. Army. As the United States readied its forces for Europe, Young and his supporters expected that he would continue to rise in the ranks and contribute to the wartime effort. The 1916 examination board for his promotion to lieutenant colonel acknowledged Young’s prior illness (he had contracted malaria while in Liberia), but concluded he was fit for duty.
“In June 1917, Young was selected for promotion to rank of colonel; however, his physical examination revealed he suffered from nephritis (first diagnosed in 1901), high blood pressure and an enlarged heart. At the same time, several southern senators were pressuring President Woodrow Wilson and his secretary of war to take steps to reassign or otherwise prevent white officers from serving under Young’s command.…
“In July 1917, Young was medically retired as a result of his illnesses and promoted to colonel in recognition of his distinguished service.”
But, according to history, he didn’t take the decision lying down. To prove his fitness, the then 54-year-old Col. Young rode his horse from Wilberforce to Washington, D.C.
“I think they called it the protest ride,” said Judith Green. “That’s why Ebony [magazine] called him the soldier that didn’t surrender. He rode 500 miles from Ohio to Washington, D.C., since he had gotten to the rank of colonel, which was the highest ranking black officer at that time, he wanted to remain in service, and they knew if he remained in service he would eventually have to be promoted and to avoid that promotion they retired him for medical reasons. So to prove his physical fitness, he rode his horse from Ohio to Washington, D.C.
“They retired him only to call him back into service,” added Green, noting that in November 1918, her famed cousin was called to Camp Grant in Illinois to train black service men and soon after, again, was assigned as military attaché to Liberia in 1920. While serving in Liberia, he died at a British hospital in neighboring Nigeria in 1922.
While all that history had circulated through the surviving Green (sometimes spelled Greene) and Young families, Judith Green said she hadn’t seen much else on Col. Young until recently. What alerted her was a communication from a relative telling her about a proclamation issued March 25 of this year by President Barack Obama establishing the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.
“My cousin, Michael Greene in Miami, had been on the computer and this popped up about this proclamation. So he called his sister Sharon in Michigan who in turn called me. That’s when I got on the computer and realized it was true. For one week, I was on the phone trying to get information about it. About 12 hours before the ceremony, Mayor Bayless from Xenia, Ohio called me and told us what was going on, so we prepared and went to the dedication ceremonies. That was April 2,” said Judith Green.
She and her cousin Sharon Greene and Sharon’s granddaughter Taylor as well as 85-year-old Charles E. Underwood—one of the oldest living relatives of Col. Young—and his wife were among family members attending the dedication ceremony at the Col. Young Wilberforce home, that also served as part of the Underground Railroad.
For Judith Green, it was a proud family moment long in coming. She’s also happy that Col. Young finally is getting his due in American history.
“Four years ago I couldn’t find much information on Col. Young on the Internet. Now, there’s an abundance,” she said.
She said, there’s also a move to get him posthumously promoted to brigadier general.
“It’s been a message throughout generations of the family to keep this story alive. I really wish my grandfather and those who have gone on before had witnessed this. They would have been most pleased. But, I carried them there with me in spirit,” she said.
For more information, search online for a number of websites about Col. Young, the National Park Service, the Buffalo Soldiers and other black military history sites. Or, visit your local library.
This article originally appeared in our April 17, 2013 issue.