Historical Marker #124 in Mason County notes the birthplace of Charles Young, an early African American graduate of the United States Military Academy and the first black colonel in the U.S. Army.
Young was born into slavery in 1864, just as the institution was beginning to die in Kentucky. Young, like his father Gabriel, was born in Mason County, Kentucky, near the Ohio River. Gabriel Young sought his freedom by crossing the river. On February 13, 1865, he enlisted in the 5th United States Colored Heavy Artillery in Ripley, Ohio, a noted Underground Railroad hotbed during the antebellum years. The Youngs later moved to Ohio and Charles received an education in Ripley, where, at sixteen years old, he graduated at the top of his class.
In 1883, after taking an extensive admission examination, Young was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Young’s dedication to education and commitment to the country was witnessed by his drive to graduate, despite the hazing and racial prejudice he experienced at West Point. When he received his diploma in 1889, he was the third African American to graduate from the prestigious institution.
Newly commissioned as a second lieutenant, Young was first assigned to Nebraska and Utah. There, he served with the 10th, and then the 9th, U.S. Cavalry, which were better known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” During the Spanish-American War, Young commanded part of an Ohio regiment, but they did not see action. A few years later, Young became the first African American superintendent of a National Park. He oversaw operations at Sequoia and General Grant National Parks in California.
Young experienced a flurry of duties during the early years of the twentieth century. He served as a military attaché to Haiti, spent time with the 9th Cavalry in the Philippines, and was attaché to Liberia. In 1916, he served with the 10th Cavalry against Poncho Villa on the Texas-Mexican border. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel that year, making him the first African American colonel in the U.S. Army.
In 1918, Young taught military science at Wilberforce University. The next year he again served as an attaché to Liberia. He died in Liberia in 1922. His body was returned to the United States and was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.