New Lesson Plans available from the National Park Service
The Remarkable WWI Story of Colonel Young's Ride
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
By Kathleen & Paul LaRue
National Museum of Afro-American History
What motivated African Americans to volunteer for a segregated military during WWI?
When the United States entered World War I, segregation was entrenched in military culture as well as civilian society. It put barriers up to prevent African Americans from enlisting. Despite this, about 380,000 African Americans served in the U.S. military during the war.
Colonel Charles Young, of Wilberforce, Ohio, was the highest-ranking African American Army officer when American joined World War I in 1917. As such, Young was a remarkable success story.
He was the third black graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1889. Young enjoyed a diverse military career as a lieutenant of a cavalry troop squadron, and regimental commander, acting superintendent of a national park, military attaché to Haiti and Liberia, professor at Wilberforce University and military advisor to the President of Liberia.
Young had commanded the 2nd squadron cavalry regiment in the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico, and had also served in the Spanish American War, and the Philippine Insurrection. On June 22, 1917 Charles Young became the first African American to reach the rank of Colonel.
Despite an impressive leadership record, the Army refused Young’s request to command troops in Europe. Military leaders told him he was not healthy enough to serve.
To prove his fitness, Young made a difficult ride on horseback, all the way from his home in Wilberforce to Washington, D.C. a distance of nearly five hundred miles.
Of his remarkable ride, Colonel Young said this. "As soon as the school year was over, I rode on horseback from Wilberforce to Washington, walking on foot fifteen minutes in each hour, the distance of 497 miles to show, if possible, my physical fitness for command of troops. I there offered my services gladly at he risk of life, which has no value to me if I cannot give it for the great ends for which the United States is striving."
His brave display failed to persuade the Secretary of War. Colonel Young did not get to lead soldiers in Europe -- but Colonel Young fought for respect on the Homefront. His act became one of the most important African American stories to come from World War I, and represents an important early civil rights chapter.
Colonel Young's inspiring story is not forgotten. There is a memorial marker honoring him in Cleveland Ohio, not far from his home of Wilberforce. Also, there is an annual motorcycle event sponsored by Omega Psi Phi fraternity that draws riders from all over the country, and that follows Colonel Young's route.
To help teach new generations about Colonel Young, our friend Paul LaRue at the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, OH created a lesson plan for the National Park Service. We have linked the lesson plan below.