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Ohio cannot go wrong by honoring Col. Charles Young in National Statuary Hall: Elizabeth Sullivan
January 18, 2010, 9:13AM
If historical worth but little- chronicled greatness are the chief criteria for picking an emblematic figure to represent Ohio in National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., the choice is clear.
Ohio cannot go wrong by honoring Col. Charles Young, the first black U.S. Army officer to reach colonel's rank. His brilliant military and diplomatic career spanned the eras of slavery to empire.
He was born in 1864 in Mays Lick, Ky., to slaves who later attained their freedom and moved across the river to Ripley, Ohio. Only the third African-American to graduate from West Point, Young was the first to enjoy a long professional military career despite the onset of the Jim Crow era. In part through his mentorship of Benjamin O. Davis Sr., he set the bar for black military leadership in this nation and served as one of America's first military-diplomatic intelligence officers in Haiti, the Philippines and Liberia.
Yet his story did not have a happy ending, as a powerful Southern senator made sure Young would be denied promotion to general, the field commission that would have been his on the battlefields of World War I.
As I wrote 51/2 years ago, "his story illuminates the best and worst of this time, when men such as himself . . . were denied their rightful places in an America beginning to flex its muscles in the world.
"Young's career was glittering but unfulfilled. With a general's star in grasp, bigotry ended his advancement as surely as a bullet would have.
"The nation that deemed Young too sick to serve in World War I sent him on a military intelligence assignment to Liberia as soon as the war was over. It was a mission his closest friends knew he wouldn't survive. Young died in Nigeria in 1922, leaving his wife and two kids to scrape by in southern Ohio by selling much of their property. The justifiable outcry from black America meant Young was buried at Arlington National Cemetery the following year.
"But soon his exceptional career and contributions were forgotten."
Ohioans should show the nation that Col. Charles Young is no longer forgotten by making him an emblem for the state in National Statuary Hall.
That would be an especially powerful statement, given the fact that the statue being replaced has since 1887 -- while Young was still a West Point cadet -- shamefully honored a former Ohio governor who opposed Lincoln and the war of emancipation.
In 2000, Congress decided that states could replace outdated statues in Statuary Hall, and in 2006, the Ohio legislature voted to give Allen the boot and to set up a study committee to recommend his replacement. (Ohio's other statue, since 1886, is that of former U.S. President James A. Garfield; it is not being replaced.)
The six-member National Statuary Collection Study Committee is holding hearings this week and next week in Columbus and planning one more "site visit" to learn about a proposed candidate (William McCulloch, a Republican congressman from southwest Ohio who championed civil rights legislation).
It will announce in February how average Ohioans may register their votes through a formal process to be moderated by the Ohio Historical Society. The committee's intent is to winnow the names down to five, and then recommend one to the Ohio legislature by summer.
Candidates must be deceased and have been a citizen of the state at some point in their lives. As one legislative staffer put it, "We love Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, but we'd rather have them alive" than dead and thus eligible to have their bronze or marble representation sent to Washington.
The committee has gone on eight previous field trips to investigate leading candidates:
A field trip to consider McCulloch will make it a ninefecta of all-male names in this insider race, as my colleague Connie Schultz noted in her Dec. 20 column nominating the pathbreaking, marvelous Zelma George for the honor.
Other readers weigh in elsewhere on this page.
Kristin Strobel, an aide to Ohio Sen. Mark Wagoner, the Northwest Ohio lawmaker chairing the statuary study commission, says its 9 a.m. hearings in Columbus the next two Thursdays -- Jan. 21 and Jan. 28 -- are open to anyone who wishes to testify in support of a nominee. Testimony will be limited to one five-minute presentation per nominee; in order to avoid overlap, the committee asks that written testimony be submitted by the Monday prior to each hearing.