Part of the fun of exploring Ohio is finding new and interesting places, but on a recent winter afternoon when I drove through the sleeping farm fields that flank U.S. 42 in Greene County, I had no clue about the extraordinary American story that awaits visitors at the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce.
Located near two universities – Wilberforce and Central State – that are historically black, the monument consists of the lovely country house and land that once belonged to Colonel Charles Young, who was born a slave in Kentucky but became the highest ranking black officer in the U.S. Army.
His stellar career included serving with the famed black cavalry troops that American Indians called “buffalo soldiers” as well as teaching military science at Wilberforce University.
After guide and Central State student Alycia Lewis, ushered me into the house that Young christened “Youngsholm,” she commented that most visitors know little about his accomplishments.
At her suggestion, I watched the National Park Service’s video about Young and learned that after his parents escaped slavery, he grew up in Ripley, Ohio, an abolitionist hotbed where John Parker, a well-known Underground Railroad conductor, befriended him. An excellent student, Young was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy and endured relentless racial slurs and animosity. In 1889, Young became only the third black cadet to graduate; it would be 47 years before another earned a West Point degree.
During his military career, Young saw combat in the Philippines; fought with General “Black Jack” Pershing in Mexico; and served as the nation’s first black military attaché when he received a 1904 posting in Haiti. The year before, Young acted as the first black national park superintendent when he commanded the Buffalo Soldiers who built public access roads in Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) parks. Following World War I, Young became the U.S. military attaché in Liberia, and in 1922, while on assignment in Nigeria, he died of kidney disease. His body was returned to the United States and interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
While Youngsholm has been a National Historic Landmark since 1974, it was President Barack Obama who proclaimed it a national monument in 2013.
Young had purchased the property in the early 1900s, and no matter where the Army sent him, he always considered the handsome brick house his permanent home. As we walked through its spacious rooms, Alycia explained that plans are underway to fill them with period-style furnishings that will provide a sense of what the house was like when Young and his family hosted social and cultural gatherings there.
In the meantime, the site’s inspiring exhibits of vintage photos and documents make powerful statements about the struggle for civil rights as well as Young’s exemplary character and leadership.
It’s worth a trip to Wilberforce just to hear guides like Alycia talk about Young’s remarkable protest journey in 1918. The Army had forced him to retire because of medical problems, but Young was determined to prove his fitness to serve. He did it by riding a horse all the way from Wilberforce to Washington, D.C.
The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, 1120 U.S. Route 42 East, Wilberforce, OH 45384; www.nps.gov/chyo .