Charles Young, First African-American National Park Superintendent, Born (1864)

Things are a lot different today in national parks than they were a century ago.  At the turn of the 20th Century, parks had official boundaries, but little else—few or no staff, few roads and other facilities and almost no enforcement of park rules.  One man, Charles Young, however, demonstrated that conditions could be different.

Charles Young was born on March 12, 1864, in Kentucky, the son of former slaves.  His family moved across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, where the Emancipation Proclamation had made them free.  He attended school there, graduating with honors from the integrated high school in 1881.

Charles Young (photo by W. Allison Sweeney)

He taught high school in his hometown until 1884, when he won admission to West Point.  After suffering through academic, isolation and racist struggles, he graduated in 1889, only the third African-American to do so.  Young went on to a series of assignments in the western United States before being posted as an instructor to the military science program at Wilberforce University, Ohio, in 1894.  He taught there for several years, earning a distinguished professorship and adopting Wilberforce as his hometown for the rest of his life.

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Young, now a major, returned to regular duty, leading a squadron of Buffalo Soldiers (the nickname of the 9th Cavalry of African-American army soldiers) in Cuba.  He then became military attache in Haiti, the first American-American to hold such a prominent military and diplomatic post.

In 1903, Young achieved another first.  At the time, the US Army was responsible for staffing national parks, and Young was named Acting Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks (now a part of Kings Canyon National Park), the first African-American to serve as a park superintendent.  His tenure was short, lasting only from June through November (the usual summer term for such assignments).  But whereas other military leaders given such an assignment might consider it a paid vacation, Young was exceptional.  Previous detachments had made only minimal progress at the parks, but Young undertook his assignment with energy and commitment.  During their stay, Young and his Buffalo Soldiers built more than 15 miles of quality roads and 18 miles of trails—the same pathways still used today by millions of Americans to visit the parks’ giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world.

Young and his troops also took seriously the laws to protect the parks.  They turned back shepherds and their flocks of sheep, previously grazing illegally on park lands.  They enforced the prohibition on hunting, with no poaching violations reported during their tenure.  Noting that some of the largest and most accessible trees were suffering from over-visitation, they built fences around the trees to keep the visitors at a distance. The local community was so pleased with Young’s accomplishments that they wished to name a tree in his honor, as had been done for other notable Americans.  He declined the honor, however, suggesting that a tree be named instead for Booker T. Washington, the great African-American educator.  

The Charles Young house in Wilberforce, Ohio, is now a national monument honoring Young and the Buffalo Soldiers (phot by Nyttend)

Young returned to active duty after his time in the parks, serving with distinction in the Philippines, Mexico and Liberia.  He was the highest-ranking African-American in the US Army at the start of World War I, but was forced to retire in 1917 (various accounts suggest that his forced retirement was to avoid his becoming the first African-American to achieve the rank of general).  After the war, the Army reinstated Young as a colonel.  He died while on an assignment in Nigeria in 1922.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Charles Young spent only a short time as an active conservationist, but his role was transformative, not only for the parks he worked in but also as an example that the parks could—and should—be more actively managed and protected.  He clearly understood what the parks were about, as he wrote in his final report as Acting Superintendent:

“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.” 

References:

Arlington National Cemetery.  Charles Young, Colonel, United States Army.  Available at:  http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/cdyoung.htm.  Accessed January 27, 2021.

National Park Service.  Colonel Charles Young.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/chyo/learn/historyculture/colonel-charles-young.htm#CP_JUMP_3401413.  Accessed January 27, 2021.

National Park Service.  Colonel Charles Young, Early Park Superintendent.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/seki/learn/historyculture/young.htm.  Accessed January 27, 2021.

This Month in Conservation

March 1
Yellowstone National Park Established (1872)
March 2
Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, Born (1904)
March 3
World Wildlife Day and Creation of CITES (1973)
March 4
Hot Springs National Park Established (1921)
March 5
Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary Biologist, Born (1938)
March 6
Martha Burton Williamson, Pioneering Malacologist, Born (1843)
March 7
Luther Burbank Born (1849)
March 8
Everett Horton Patents the Telescoping Fishing Rod (1887)
March 9
The Turbot War Begins (1995)
March 10
Cape Lookout National Seashore Established (1966)
March 11
Save the Redwoods League Founded (1918)
March 12
Charles Young, First African-American National Park Superintendent, Born (1864)
March 12
Girl Scouts Founded (1912)
March 13
National Elephant Day, Thailand
March 14
First National Wildlife Refuge Created (1903)
March 15
Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, Born (1874)
March 16
Amoco Cadiz Runs Aground (1978)
March 17
St. Patrick and Ireland’s Snakes
March 18
Nation’s First Wildlife Refuge Created (1870)
March 19
When the Swallows Return to Capistrano
March 20
“Our Common Future” Published (1987)
March 21
International Day of Forests
March 22
World Water Day
March 23
Sitka National Historical Park Created (1910)
March 24
John Wesley Powell, Western Explorer, Born (1834)
March 25
Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Born (1914)
March 26
Marjorie Harris Carr, Pioneering Florida Conservationist, Born (1915)
March 27
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Begun (1975)
March 28
Joseph Bazalgette, London’s Sewer King, Born (1819)
March 29
Niagara Falls Stops Flowing (1848)
March 30
The United States Buys Alaska (1867)
March 31
Al Gore, Environmental Activist and U.S. Vice President, Born (1948)
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