Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point
My book club recently read this insightful biography of Charles Young's birth through graduation from West Point with unanimous praise for Shellum's writing style and solid research.
Author Brian Shellum performs a great service by portraying Young's faults along with his strengths so that we can fully appreciate how hard he had to work to earn his stripes.
I was unfamiliar with the story of racism at the military academy and this thoroughly researched book provides a great deal of context and thought provoking observations that are useful today.
The author outlines the challenges of writing about an individual whose color relegated him to a shadowy existence at West Point. Yet with some diligent and creative research, Shellum pieces together a biography of a hero who clearly became the Colin Powell of his time.
His struggle against the racism of the time is a story that begs to be told.
Charles Young (1864-1922) was the third African American West Point graduate and the only one from the nineteenth century who had a long military career (1889-1922). He was born in slavery, which his father fled to serve with Union forces in the Civil War, thereby acquiring, he believed, the discipline and the capital to live as a free man. An excellent student, Young determined to get the best education possible, though his family couldn't afford college. Placing second in his district in the West Point entrance examinations, he got the appointment when the first-ranked candidate resigned. Later graduate Shellum draws on his own West Point knowledge in vividly portraying the difficulties Young encountered, and he points up Young's determination and devotion to his country. Young, who died a colonel on active duty, was so thoroughly or deliberately forgotten by the outbreak of World War II that Congress and the War Department acted as if black officers had never been heard of. Shellum has put his keyboard to good use.
This is the first of what promises to be a multi-volume biography of Charles Young, who was the Army’s only black line officer for most of the years between 1889 and 1922. In this volume, the author, himself an USMA graduate, begins with Young’s family, carrying the story back to the early decades of the nineteenth century. This not only provides a look at the background of slavery in Kentucky, but also demonstrates how family ties could surmount its barriers, and ultimately enable a youngster born in bondage during the Civil War to get into West Point. Young’s experience at the Military Academy, of course, constitutes the bulk of the work. Skillfully sifting primary materials, Shellum puts together a picture of life at the Academy that combines what would have been the common experience of any cadet at the time (1884-1889, Young having been “held back” one year), with the particular experiences that Young had, given the racist attitudes of the day. Despite these attitudes, Shellum notes that Young emerged from the Academy with a number of close friends among his classmates. While naturally of great value for anyone interested in the history of black Americans in the military service, it will also be of use to anyone interested in the Academy, officer training, or the development of the U.S. Army.
Charles Young was born into slavery and freed when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law in 1863. Raised in Ohio, Young’s father served with an all black Union Army artillery unit in the western theater. His mother, who could read and write, instilled in him the desire to gain an education. Inspired by his parents, Young received an appointment to West Point, graduating in 1889. Through letters, journals, dairies, and official sources, author Brian Shellum does a fine job of allowing the reader to gain a glimpse of life at the academy during those post-Civil War years. He describes the strenuous everyday life of a cadet: academics, hazing, and the numerous duties each individual had to overcome to graduate.
I've been through your Young book several times. Nice job. I have not done any original Young research in a long time, but I remembered there was not much in his own hand from his five years as a cadet. You've done a first rate job in mining the Military Academy archives (academic and discipline records, plus letters from classmates) to paint a full portrait of Young while at "the Point".