Charles Young’s life was defined by firsts.
Young was the first Black national park superintendent, the first Black military attaché, the first Black colonel, and the highest-ranking Black person in the U.S. military until his death at age 57 from a kidney infection while on a reconnaissance mission in Nigeria.
“He took whatever job he had very, very seriously, and wanted to excel at it because he knew that everyone was looking at him,” says Floyd Thomas Jr., a Charles Young historian. “He knew that if he screwed up, that would be an excuse for not giving other African Americans the opportunities that he fought for and earned.”
Young faced adversity early in life. Born into slavery in 1864, he entered the world at the culmination of the Civil War. When he was an infant, his family fled to the free state of Ohio and Young’s father, Gabriel, enlisted in the 5th United States Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment. Gabriel’s service would inspire relentless perseverance in Young.
Growing up, Young stood out in mostly white classrooms. He was one of the first students of color in his Ohio high school, and after graduating with honors, he attended the United States Military Academy, West Point, where he faced bigotry from his peers, says Brian Shellum, a Charles Young biographer. Despite enduring racism and academic setbacks, Young completed his education and became the third Black graduate from West Point.
When Young entered his military service as a second lieutenant, his options were limited. Black soldiers were often sent to the American West, says Shellum, to join specific regiments dubbed “Buffalo Soldiers.” The nickname, given by Native American tribes during the Indian Wars, was likely because the soldiers’ dark, curly hair reminded them of a buffalo’s coat.
Young first served for a year with the 9th Cavalry Regiment in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, before being reassigned to the 10th Cavalry in Fort Duchesne, Utah, according to the National Park Service. By age 30, he was tasked with leading the military science department at Wilberforce College, a Historically Black College.
As a junior officer, Young led troops that, for the most part, looked like him, says Shellum. By 1901, Young was promoted to captain, and as he rose in ranks, more white men fell under his command.
“It became a problem for some of those white officers who just could not bring themselves to serve under a Black officer,” says Shellum. But Young was about to embark on a new, unexpected challenge—and his strong leadership would win him allies.
After serving as captain of a Black company in the Presidio of San Francisco, Young was appointed as the acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks—an area that’s now Sequoia and a small section of Kings Canyon National Parks—in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The national parks, managed and protected by the military at the time, included Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rock Creek Park, Sequoia and General Grant, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake. The appointment made Young the first Black person to become a national park superintendent.
When Young arrived in the parks in 1903, they were just 13 years old, and lacked the infrastructure necessary for visitors to enjoy the famous sequoia groves. His mission was simple: protect the parks and make them accessible to visitors. This meant keeping local livestock like sheep from grazing inside the parks’ boundaries, defending the trees from illegal loggers, and protecting wildlife from hunters. Young commanded a company of Buffalo Soldiers and a team of local white civilian roadworkers. Young’s leadership was largely met with acceptance, says Thomas. “He was always trying to look after his troops,” he says. "I think they really wanted to honor him by doing really good work.”
Young took a different approach than the parks’ previous superintendents. In the three summers leading up to Young’s arrival in the park, barely five miles of road had been constructed. “He and his crew did more in his brief time there than the previous two or three superintendents,” says Thomas, referring to the summer of 1903. Under Young’s leadership, the crew of roadworkers began construction in the late spring, reached the parks' famous Giant Forest by August, and extended the road to Moro Rock later that summer.
Young was also tasked with patrolling the park for illegal hunters. To show locals that he and his men weren’t participating in the illegal hunting, Shellum says Young “had his soldiers lock up all their rifles” during patrols.
To show their appreciation of Young’s tireless efforts in the parks, the nearby town of Visalia proposed that they name a tree in Young’s honor. Young told locals that if they still wanted to name a tree in his honor in 20 years, they could revisit the idea, insisting that they instead dedicate the tree to Booker T. Washington, which still stands today.
Young had a conservationist's foresight. In his retrospective superintendent report, which he completed later that fall, he wrote:
Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation.
Previous superintendents had also written reports, but, “Young’s is completely different, and kind of remarkable,” says Ward Eldredge, curator for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “It engages in issues of park management that seem a lot more contemporary,” he says. The report’s distinguishing qualities, according to the Eldredge, are Young’s consideration and thoughtfulness for the natural world.
Eldredge says that summer in 1903 held a special significance to Young, and that “the ability to contribute had been transformative.” Young purchased property in the area and likely had plans to return, but he would never have that chance.
After his summer post was completed, Young once again found himself breaking new ground as the first Black military attaché, a post reserved for high-ranking officers. He was sent to Haiti, where he served for three years, and later, the Philippines. In 1912, at the age of 48, Young was sent to Liberia to help train the Liberian Frontier Force and was promoted to major. Four years later, he’d return to serve as a squadron commander, battling Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico.
Then, with World War One on the horizon, his superiors decided that Young’s declining health made him unfit to lead. Young disagreed with the charge, traveling on horseback some 500 miles from Ohio to Washington, D.C. to prove his fitness. While his demonstration ultimately won him reinstatement as a full colonel, Young was never allowed to lead troops in the war. Even Young’s impressive reputation was no match for the military’s racial bias, says Thomas.
“He was unable to achieve what he sought most to do, and that is to serve when the country needed his leadership,” Thomas says. “He was devastated when he couldn't do what he had prepared himself and prepared so many others for.”
After the war, Young was sent to Nigeria as an attaché, where his compromised health only worsened. In 1922, he died unexpectedly at the age of 57 from a kidney infection. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery and received an obituary in the New York Times. At the time of his death, Young was the highest-ranking Black man in the military.
“He mentored a whole generation of Black army officers,” Shellum says. “The fact that he was able to achieve these distinctions at that time made a huge difference for those that followed him. It proved to many white officers that a Black man could be successful if you gave him a white man’s chance.”
Young’s achievements were not just for himself, or his wife and children—they were for something bigger. “When he would autograph a photograph, he would sometimes say, ‘For a race and country,’” Thomas says. “He knew what he represented.”
While progress has been made, the struggle to honor those excluded from history endures. In 2004—one hundred years after he said they could name a tree in his honor—a tree was dedicated to Young. The Colonel Young Tree now stands near the Booker T. Washington tree, overlooking the road and trails Young’s team constructed. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama established the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, Ohio, where visitors can tour Young’s home. While Young’s life was one of exclusion and omission, says Shellum, his legacy should not meet the same fate.
“There’s a whole time period where [Black people] are missing from the record, and it's carried over to our times,” Shellum says. “We can't go back and make Young’s life easier,” Shellum adds, “but at least we can tell these stories now.”
This story is part of an ongoing series that will highlight trailblazers in birding, conservation, and environmental history whose contributions were overlooked or underrecognized because of their identities or backgrounds. We welcome readers to submit suggestions or pitches future profiles. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put "History Series" in the subject line.