Colonel Charles Young: First African American National Park Superintendent has Ohio Roots

Jennie Vasarhelyi
Special to Gannett
Major Young shortly before accepting the NAACP Spingarn Medal in Boston, c. 1916

‘"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."

— Captain Charles Young in Report of the Acting Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, California, October 15, 1903

Black History Month provides us an opportunity to celebrate the national-scale achievements of Ohioans. As a soldier, diplomat, and civil rights leader, Charles Young became a leading figure in the years after the Civil War. Among his achievements, he served as the first African American superintendent of a national park. His life is commemorated at Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Xenia, Ohio.

Born into slavery in Kentucky during the Civil War, Young's life took him to places where a Black man was rarely welcome. He was the first African American to graduate from the white high school in Ripley, Ohio. He became the third Black man to graduate with his commission from the US Military Academy at West Point.

Young’s military career flourished in the cavalry. In 1903, while serving as a Captain of an all-Black regiment at San Francisco’s Presidio, he was asked to take his troops to Sequoia and General Grant national parks (what is now Sequoia National Park and a small portion of Kings Canyon National Park). There, he became acting superintendent for the summer. In May, ninety-six enlisted men of troops I and M of the 9th Cavalry, known as Buffalo Soldiers, departed San Francisco for their new assignment.

At that time, Sequoia and General Grant national parks were still relatively undeveloped and difficult to access. The US Army had responsibility to manage the park since 1891 and focused on stopping poaching of wildlife, illegal logging, and sheep grazing. Beginning in 1900, however, Congress authorized funding for park improvements to increase access. The Army had begun to improve an old wagon road that went to the Giant Forest.

Progress on the road prior to 1903 was slow. Hoping to outpace the progress of previous military administrations, Young asked to begin work early and poured considerable energy into the project. Supervising a construction manager and civilian roadworkers, his crews soon made dirt and rock begin to fly. By mid-August, wagons traveled to the sequoia groves for the first time. Still not content, Young kept his crews of men working and they soon extended

the road to the base of Moro Rock. Young reported that the road was built with less than an 8% grade and that it “should in future insure a thousand tourists where in previous years there have been but a hundred.” And so began an era of tourism in the parks.

Road construction was not his only notable achievement. During his tenure, the parks reported no poaching violations. His troops stationed on the east side of the Sierra stopped herds of domestic sheep from entering the park and illegally grazing in meadows. Over 18 miles of trail were improved. Young also convinced a majority of private landowners to sign contracts agreeing to sell tracts of land surrounded by the parks, paving a foundation for later land acquisition.

To honor Young’s work on the road, the neighboring town of Visalia requested that a sequoia tree be named in his honor. He protested, asking them to defer this honor and revisit the idea in twenty years. If after that time they had not changed their minds, he would be comfortable with a tree dedicated in his name. A tree was later named in his honor along the Crescent Meadow / Moro Rock Road.

Young did indicate that Booker T. Washington was a more worthy candidate for a tree. In his final Superintendent report, he recommended caution and responsibility when naming trees and permitted naming of only three trees, including the Booker T. Washington Tree.

After Young’s one-summer tenure in the parks, he continued his military career, eventually achieving the rank of Colonel. He served as military attaché in Haiti, Liberia, and Nigeria. During the Pershing expedition in Mexico in 1916, Young again saw active combat in the fight against revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. When he died in 1922, he became the fourth soldier in history to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.

The energy and dignity that Colonel Young brought to his career left a strong impression on those that followed in his footsteps. In the parks, the roads he created have been much improved but are still in use today, serving millions of park visitors for more than eighty years. The example he set as a determined Black man overcoming the prejudices of society remains an inspiration to anyone who faces similar adversity and challenges today.

To learn more about Colonel Charles Young and Buffalo Soldiers, visit www.nps.gov/chyo. Find much more black history and heritage at www.nps.gov.

This article is courtesy of the staff at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and Tom Engberg, Visual Information Specialist for Southern Ohio NPS parks.

Vasarhelyi is CVNP Supervisory Program Manager for Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services.