In the past few weeks, several excellent editorials have appeared focusing on our request for the honorary promotion for the legendary soldier/diplomat Colonel Charles Young to the rank of Brigadier General. The editorials focused on the inability (or) unwillingness of the Army’s Center for Military History to offer an unbiased finding to the Secretary of the Army regarding the Colonel’s entitlement to such a promotion. For those who did not see the editorials, Ms. Arelya Mitchell, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of the Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway, took the institution to task for omitting the important factor of how race affected the Colonel’s opportunity for the promotion during his period of service (1889 to 1922).
Based on the Colonel’s outstanding history of service, many people wonder why there is any controversy behind the promotion request. Colonel Young was the third Black graduate of West Point Military Academy, the first Black Superintendent of the National Park Service, and the first Black military attaché to the countries of Liberia and Haiti and at the time of his death, the highest ranking Black Officer in the United States Armed Forces. Those are all facts that are irrefutable. It is also without question that the military services of the era were segregated and limited the advancement of Black Officers. The policy of the day prevented Blacks from serving in command positions over white service personnel. Simply put, there was no room in the United States Army for a Black General. To emphasize that point, at the onset of World War I, Colonel Young was medically separated from the Army to block his eligibility for such a promotion.
The Center for Military History reported in its findings that the Colonel’s military records were destroyed in 1973 in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis, MO. However, enough facts exist about the era to substantiate the true motive behind his separation. In addition, an old newspaper clipping was recently made available that stated General Jack Pershing had personally recommended Colonel Young for a command position in World War I. With the alleged destruction of the Colonel’s military records we are unable to validate if the recommendation was committed to his military files. Controversy, it is also impossible for the Department of the Army to deny the recommendation was not in his military file.
For those who suspect the Department of the Army is trying to steer clear of this issue, you are absolutely right. The question is “Why?” Since the White House has not spoken directly to us about the requested promotion, we are left to surmise the possible difficulties they are experiencing with our request. They could possibly be concerned about how the promotion would reflect on the history of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. who in 1939 became the first Black General in the regular United States Armed Forces. The answer is no reflection at all. The promotion we have requested is honorary. There is also the possibility that the military may fear that the acknowledgement that race was a factor in promotions would raise questions if other individuals were subject to the same or similar policy practices. Surely they cannot believe members of the public are unaware of the racist policies of that era in American History. Past Presidential Administrations have addressed the subject by granting the necessary redress as a public demonstration of how we have grown as a nation in our tolerance of cultural differences. The act of recognition, though belated, is for the living more than for the dead. Colonel Young will never enjoy hearing the sound of being addressed as Brigadier General Young. However, those of us living and those to follow would view the acknowledgement of his honorary promotion as a barometer in how our nation has grown in our understating and appreciation for where we have come from to where we are today. Yes, there should be future calls for an examination of the historical records to correct oversights and omissions. The history of our nation should be the foundation of how we measure our national growth. Who could argue it is not a positive sign of growth when a nation can demonstrate maturity in acknowledging the errors of past policy and practices.
In 1991, former President George H.W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to the family of Corporal Freddie Stowers for an act of Bravery committed in 1918. He was decorated seventy – three years after the fact. According to the Army, the recommendation for him to receive the Medal had gotten lost in the files. He served during the same era as Colonel Young. Obviously, his military records were not destroyed in the 1973 fire. I wonder, were the files of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts destroyed in the fire? Up until the decoration of Corporal Stowers, they were the highest decorated Black Soldiers of World War I. Serving as members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, fighting under the command of the French Army; both men distinguished themselves in battle. They became the first two Americans soldiers to be awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal from the French Government for gallantry in action. Not to let the Navy feel left out, there is the question regarding the recognition of Dorie Miller, the Black cook who manned an anti-aircraft gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th. 1941 and shot down a few enemy aircraft. Fifteen of the men, who acted with valor during the attack, were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Miller the cook, who put his own safety at risk by manning the anti-aircraft gun, was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest medal that can be awarded to a member of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard for valor. The fifteen Medal of Honor recipients were White servicemen. While our focus is on Colonel Charles Young, there are grounds to support calling for a Presidential Commission to conduct an independent review of the files pertaining to the history of Blacks participation in the Armed Forces. As for the military, they should welcome the independent review. It would remove the perception that they are attempting to hide some not so secret secrets of the past. The sense of openness would rid the institution from the ghost of past racial practices. Separate was not equal during the early years of American History.
As for now, the Department of the Army through its Center for Military History is demonstrating institutional amnesia about how race impacted the service and promotional opportunity of Colonel Charles Young. Through their initial omission about the impact of race, both have deemed themselves less than a credible source on the history of the man and the era of American History that he served. In the Center’s defense, maybe the question was improperly posed to them from the Office of the Secretary of the Army. While it was proper to request that they provide facts about the Colonel’s history and the era that he served, it is questionable why they were asked to evaluate his service at the general officer level. The Center for Military History has no standings in making such an evaluation. Quoting Robert Dalessandro, the director of the Center, “We simply do not have authority to approve or deny such a request for anyone, living or dead.” The decision lies where our correspondence was directed, with the President of the United States.
We are calling on Black Veterans and the public to join us in requesting President Obama grant Colonel Young the promotion to Brigadier General. We have initiated a mail campaign calling on the public to mail a statement of support to the White House on the Colonel’s behalf. Attached with this editorial is a petition/flier that we ask you to sign and mail to The White House. Please share a copy with your family, church members and friends. Or send an e-mail to: email@example.com and we will send you a copy of the petition/flier.
The deeds of our past are the foundation of our future, Lest We Forget.
To view the Coalition Campaign letter, Click Here.