Black Americans played essential, if largely unsung, roles in the creation of our National Park System. Buffalo Soldiers — six Black regiments that served primarily out West after the Civil War — were among the first rangers, with some 500 serving in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. A generation later, many of the 200,000 African Americans in the segregated Civilian Conservation Corps worked through the Depression building much of the public-lands infrastructure that still stands today.
Each of them helped make some of the country’s wildest, most beautiful places accessible to all — a role Charles Young took to heart as the first Black superintendent of federal parkland. During his brief tenure in 1903 managing Sequoia National Park and what later became Kings Canyon National Park, Young achieved more in one summer than most of us hope to in a year. He supervised construction of the first publicly accessible roads leading to the highest peak in the Lower 48 and to two of the great wonders of the Sierra Nevada, effectively introducing tourism to national parks. Young also negotiated deals to extend the parks’ borders, and urged the Secretary of the Interior to expand them further — a recommendation Congress acted on. Today, advocates of greater representation and equal access to outdoor spaces are building on the achievements of a man who began that campaign more than 100 years ago.
His legacy is “a reminder of excellence and history, and the idea that discrimination and systems of oppression can’t hold back change,” says Grist 50 Fixer CJ Goulding, a program manager at the Children & Nature Network, and partner at The Avarna Group. “For me, that’s what Charles Young signifies.”
Young — known for his strong leadership style, work ethic, and lifelong intellectual pursuits — has been lauded as a diplomat, an academic, and a military leader by such presidents as Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama. He was born in May’s Lick, Kentucky, to enslaved parents in 1864 — the year before the end of the Civil War. In 1866, the family moved to the abolitionist hub of Ripley, Ohio, where Young, gifted in music and foreign languages, graduated from high school with honors.
His father encouraged him to enroll at West Point, where he became the third African American student to graduate in 1889. Soon after, the Army sent him west to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry Regiment, where he was a natural soldier who rose to the rank of captain, served with distinction in the Philippine-American War, and became the leading military-science professor at Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. Though his work took him to far-flung places, Young made Ohio his home. His house, nicknamed “Youngsholm,” became a gathering place for prominent Black intellectuals and leaders, including lifelong friends W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
In 1903, a few years after Congress began allocating money to increase access to the parks, Young was appointed the superintendent of Sequoia and the adjacent General Grant (now Kings Canyon) National Parks by the Army, which oversaw the system. Still leading the Ninth Cavalry, Young deployed 15 soldiers to construct the first trail to the summit of Mount Whitney (elevation:14,505 feet). He supervised construction of roads that led to an immense sequoia grove, called Giant Forest, and to Moro Rock, the iconic dome-shaped granite formation at the center of the park. Young also played key roles in expanding the size of the two parks, which sit about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
Delighted with his work, residents of a nearby town suggested naming a sequoia in Young’s honor. Ever humble, he asked that they revisit the idea in 20 years and suggested they consider Booker T. Washington instead. In the end, both men received the honor; today, the two trees stand alongside one of the very roads Young’s men built. Given that the tree bearing his name may live for thousands of years, it seems a fitting tribute to his contributions. “He had to face a lot of adversity and discrimination in order to create the change that he did,” says Goulding. “When he and the Buffalo Soldiers went out there to do that work, he didn’t just wither, he wasn’t just mediocre, he wasn’t just decent — he and his men excelled.”
The Army tended to rotate people through park service assignments after just a few months, and Young soon moved on. The rest of his career was no less illustrious than his tenure in the mountains of Southern California. He served as the nation’s first Black military attaché during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1916. When the U.S. entered World War I, Young was slated for a promotion to brigadier general, only to see it scuttled when white officers protested. Instead, he was pushed into medical retirement in 1917.
Even that couldn’t stop him, though. Young proved his health by riding 500 miles on horseback from Ohio to Washington, D.C., prompting the Army to reinstate him at the rank of colonel and send him to Liberia as a military attaché. Young died of a kidney infection on January 8, 1922, in Lagos. When his body was repatriated, he received a hero’s welcome. On June 1, 1923, he became the fourth soldier to have a ceremony at the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater and be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Even now, Young continues to inspire those who see the value of public lands and dedicate themselves to ensuring they are open, and welcoming, to all. Goulding, who started his career as a National Park Service intern nearly a decade ago, says he’s always viewed outdoor access through a lens of diversity. Quoting the famous Woody Guthrie song, Goulding acknowledges there’s still a ways to go. “‘This land is your land / this land is my land’ — those sound like nice words, but the system we live in wasn’t created for that to mean everybody.”
Charles Young understood that when he took the first steps toward making our parks just a little bit more accessible for folks more than a century ago.