Trailblazing Buffalo Soldier Promoted 100 Years Later

Trailblazing Buffalo Soldier Promoted 100 Years Later

Under SecArmy presenting award
Photo by: U.S. Army/Christopher Hennen

More than a century after his death, Charles Young, the first African American colonel in the U.S. Army, was posthumously promoted to brigadier general.

The long overdue recognition took place April 29 at an event hosted by Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where Young began his Army career and became the third African American to graduate from the academy in 1889. 

Young’s time at West Point was “marked by hardship and adversity,” said Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the academy superintendent.

“But through his perseverance and determination, along with a quiet dignity and grace, Young overcame that adversity,” Williams said. “He holds an honored place on West Point’s Long Gray Line and still inspires generations of soldiers and officers today as an exemplar of Army values and the West Point ideals of duty, honor and country.” 

Young was a trailblazer throughout his almost 40-year military career. After graduating from West Point, he served in cavalry commands, rising from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel by 1917, according to the Army.

In 1903, Young led the prestigious Buffalo Soldiers as the superintendent of Sequoia National Park in California and was charged with protecting, building and preserving the historical landmark. 

He was the Army’s first African American colonel “during a time when many deemed that accomplishment to be impossible,” according to an Army press release. He also served as a military attaché to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Liberia. 

According to the Army, Young was prematurely medically retired as a colonel in 1917 because of the racial sentiment of the day. He would be recalled in 1920 to serve as a military attaché to Liberia for a second time. While visiting Nigeria in late 1921, Young became gravely ill and died at the British hospital in Lagos on Jan. 8, 1922, according to a profile by the National Park Service.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth approved the honorary promotion on Oct. 6, 2021, to recognize Young’s leadership, dedication to duty and determination.

Young’s descendants abide by the “Young Doctrine,” which emphasizes the importance of never deferring dreams, even in the face of obstacles. His posthumous promotion is emblematic of the values he lived by, Camarillo said. 

“Now while Charles Young may have been constrained and stifled by the age in which he lived, he did not defer his dreams,” Camarillo said. “His promotion today to brigadier general has been a long time delayed, but fortunately for all of us, no longer denied.”

Renotta Young, the soldier’s great niece and advocate for his promotion, expressed her gratitude to the Army. 

“I was deeply moved when I was informed that the secretary of the Army approved the promotion of my uncle,” she said. “Charles Young, by all accounts, was a renaissance man, and that is what resonates with people the most. I hope the Army will continue to use this story to make sure their ranks reflect the diversity of our nation.”

Col. Charles Young, photo courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.jpeg
Col. Charles Young. Photo courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.