African Americans and the Formation of National Parks: The Story of Charles Young

This blog post is by Amira Abdul-Hafiz Walker, an intern in the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) Internship Program at the Library of Congress.

Broaden students’ understanding of history by introducing them to stories of people who broke through barriers and experienced high levels of success through their own volition.

One such person was Colonel Charles Young. Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1864, he went on to become the third African American to graduate from West Point, the first African American to serve as superintendent over a National Park, the first African American military attaché, and was the highest ranking African American United States military officer for the duration of his life.

Topics that intersect with the timeline of his life include:

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction Era
  • The Spanish-American War
  • World War I

A study of Charles Young’s life could be incorporated into existing lesson plans, or explored independently to enrich learning objectives using the following primary sources.

Major Charles Young and Capt. John R. Barber

Students can begin forming a holistic understanding of who Young was by observing this photograph. The photo caption preserves outdated language to describe African-Americans–please use discretion when sharing this item with students.

Ask students what this photo tells them about Charles Young. What doesn’t it tell them? What did he do for a living? What clues suggest what his personality was like? After students share with a partner, lead them into further investigation with the next primary source.

Contextualize Charles Young’s life within historical events by having students read and annotate this congressional document.

Ask students to consider where and when Charles Young was born. What obstacles did he face? What were some of his accomplishments? Ask them again, what clues suggest what his personality was like? Pause and ask them what they wonder about him.

The Library’s Chronicling America collection can help students see Young’s life from a different perspective. Use this article to introduce Young’s thoughts on conservation. Ask students to look for evidence of how Charles Young felt about protecting forests. In small groups, support them in discussing what they found and how Young used his position to help form National Parks. Remind students that World War I was happening at this time and ask them to consider how it might have affected both private land owners and the government’s priorities.

As a whole group, ask students to think about the three sources and share what they learned. If Young could give them life advice, what might he say? What did they learn that surprised them? What questions do the sources leave unanswered?

Additional sources:

How would you use Charles Young’s story to inspire your students?

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