Xenia, OH….Travel continues to surprise me. I began my ‘monumental task’ of pursuing the USA’s National Monuments by stating an expectation of discovering interesting things nearby. Of course travel would immediately humble me with a reminder that ‘nearby’ is a two way street. There is one National Monument in my home state of Ohio, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument. Located in Xenia, Ohio, it is a twenty minute drive from my home!
I remain startled by almost total unfamiliarity with National Monuments, and Charles Young would prove no exception. Being clueless seemed to place me in the majority, because the site is near the bottom of least visited National Monuments. A possible driver of this outcome is how the web site expresses the need to schedule an appointment. I appreciate how this discourages tourism, but living next door eliminated the issue for me. Even better, an email exchange revealed total flexibility to receive me at my convenience. Recognizing the need to come up to speed, I settled on a date several weeks out to afford time for picking up a biography from the local library.
Who knew that confronting ignorance could be so inspiring? Charles Young was born into slavery near the end of the Civil War and his family escaped to the north just before the conflict ended. They settled in Ohio and Charles would be raised with great attention to education, benefiting from a literate mother (a rarity, suggesting she had worked as a house slave). Charles would graduate at the top of his class as the sole non-white student in 1880.
Registering the second highest score in Oho for aspirants to West Point in 1883, Charles would become only the third black man to graduate (and sadly, the last until 1936). You might imagine the prejudice and hazing Charles endured, but it was horrific. Other obstacles included failing an engineering class (West Point’s biggest acclaim in the early years was producing engineers). It was a pleasant surprise to learn he rebounded and passed with tutoring from George Washington Goethals, the engineer who would go on to salvage construction of the Panama Canal.
After graduating, Charles was commissioned as a second lieutenant in an all-black regiment known as ‘Buffalo Soldiers’. These outfits were stationed in the Wild West where primary duties were policing against attacks from Native Americans. The buffalo nickname had been bestowed by Native Americans due to similarities in complexion and hair texture. During this first stint lasting five years, Charles demonstrated excellent character and leadership skill.
When Wilberforce University, the first college owned and operated by black Americans, started a military sciences department, the War Department reassigned Young to spearhead the program. W.E.B. Dubois was also teaching here and the two became friends for life. When Charles’ father passed away his mother came to live with him at Wilberforce, begging a bigger home. A two-story brick house within a mile of campus was purchased, its selection motivated by a legacy of having been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Charles re-christened it ‘Youngsholm’ and while his career would move him around the globe, Youngsholm persisted as his permanent residence: this is the site of the National Monument.
The work Young performed at Wilberforce was astonishing. Building curricula from scratch, the industrious officer capitalized upon experiences with the Buffalo Soldiers and complemented classroom activity with physical and firearms training. An inspirational role model, Young constantly displayed first class standards of conduct and taught languages (he was fluent in French, Spanish, German, Latin and Greek!), mathematics, science and even music. A personally endearing attribute was this latter love: Charles played piano, guitar and banjo, established a marching band at Wilberforce, and composed numerous songs.
Duties at Wilberforce would end when the Spanish American War dawned, and although Young experienced a long and circuitous route, he was eventually deployed to the Philippines as the first black American with the rank of Captain. Several lucky naval victories led the USA to believe it would be an easy matter to conquer the Philippines, but like Viet Nam, guerilla warfare challenged the country’s military commanders. Young, however, combined experience, intelligence, strict discipline and willingness to interact with the natives in accomplishing every assignment.
Once back in the USA, this track record led to a task that should appeal to travel junkies. Charles Young became the first African American to serve as superintendent of a US National Park! Placed in charge of Sequoia National Park, Young would lead his all black regiment to build more roadways in one season than what had been accomplished by white predecessors during three prior years.
Consistently satisfying duties above and beyond expectation, Young would be assigned as military attaché to Hispaniola (Haiti + Dominican Republic) in 1904. As the planet began groping with international relations, this was a new station combining military and diplomatic duties. Charles fulfilled this unlikely combo admirably. The USA was covertly considering a seizure of Hispaniola and Charles meandered extensively on horseback, his artistic skill utilized to detail roadways and military installations while simultaneously maintaining excellent relations with the government.
This string of exemplary performances caused consternation for the US Army. Young deserved promotion, but how could they mandate white troops reporting to a black officer? The resolution would be further foreign deployments, moving Young to Liberia. I will not exhaust you with details, but this was another trying assignment which Young handled brilliantly, achieving what needed to be done with sensitivity to his second class citizenship in the eyes of white superiors
Returning home, Young would successfully direct Buffalo Soldiers during the country’s pitiful excursion into Mexico to pursue Pancho Villa. Young’s leadership of a cavalry squadron which lived off the land while roaming hundreds of miles in hostile environments earned accolades from General “Black Jack” Pershing.
When the USA entered World War I, Young was involuntarily “retired due to medical conditions.” Now aged 52, there were legitimate health concerns, but the primary motivation was the army’s continuing dread of white soldiers reporting to Young. In response to the charges of incapacity, Charles packed his saddlebags and jumped on his horse to ride 500 miles from Youngsholm to Washington D.C. It took him sixteen days and several nights he had to sleep outside due to unavailability of lodging for black citizens, only a hundred years ago. A refreshing respite happened in Virginia, when he was refused at an African American hotel because he was dirty: until other lodgers recognized who he was and the manager quickly reversed judgment.
Despite the publicity generated from this gallant ride, nothing came of it. Adding insult to injury, Young was restored to active duty five days before the armistice was signed. Now a Colonel, Young returned to Liberia as military attaché. Always committed to duty, Young ventured to Cameroon and Nigeria to inspect Liberia’s neighbors and gather intelligence, succumbing to nephritis in Lagos. Such was his reputation that Charles Young would be buried in Nigeria with full military honors by British colonial authorities, escorted by a Nigerian police honor guard.
When Young’s wife had been informed of his death (she had remained at Youngsholm while their two children attended boarding schools in the US), she asked for his body to come home. I am amazed this request was fulfilled within a year’s time due to the distance and numerous international entities which had to be coordinated in the effort. Only in death would Young gain recognition he deserved.
Charles Young was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., the final resting place for the countries’ military heroes. Black public schools were closed in the city so children could attend the ceremony, which included a parade of marching and mounted black soldiers carrying Young’s body in a flag draped caisson. Trailing behind was his favorite horse, with no rider but a sheathed sword hanging off the saddle and reversed boots in the stirrups (the traditional tribute for a cavalry officer).
This concludes the legacy and my apologies if you were expecting a travelogue rather than a biography. My admiration for travel is how it encourages discovery of our world, which includes people as well as places. I am as keen to share a remarkable life as a hidden waterfall and discovering Charles Young made my visit to Youngsholm vibrant. I had an intensive tour: a one-on-one affair with a docent who was a Wilberforce undergraduate.
Hopefully a welcome piece of insider info is that you do not need to schedule a designated time. I dutifully arrived at the appointed hour, but other groups followed me without prior arrangement and were accorded an identical experience. After watching a brief video on Charles’ life, one of several docents will escort you or your party about the home.
There is nothing physically exceptional about Youngsholm: the appeal stems from the acclaim it extends for an exceptional individual. Most compelling was probably the exchanges with my docent: she was passionate about equal rights and among our topics was a riveting discussion about Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”. The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument is recommended to pay homage to an extraordinary life and celebrate everything travel opens our eyes to.