November 22, 2013

Saving Colonel Charles Young's Historic Birthplace in Mays Lick, Ky.

  • By: Katherine Flynn
Colonel Charles Young was born in this cabin in May’s Lick, Ky., in 1864. Credit: Bill Macintire, Kentucky Heritage Council

The cabin doesn’t look like much. Tucked into a stand of trees and covered in vines, its log walls and stone chimney slightly off-kilter, the neglected building has sat empty for years. But its humble appearance belies a big slice of history: In 1864 it served as the birthplace of Charles Young, an African-American colonel who fought discrimination to build a remarkable military career.

Young, who was born to enslaved parents but grew up free after his family escaped to Ohio and his father served in the Civil War, was just the third African-American to graduate from West Point in 1889. His accomplishments include a stint as a professor in the military sciences department at Wilberforce College in Ohio (where he befriended colleague W.E.B. Du Bois) and service as a member of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

He was also the first African-American superintendent of a national park, and spent several years as a military attaché in Liberia. He died in 1922 on a reconnaissance mission in Nigeria and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

A plaque informs visitors of the cabin’s significance. Credit: Bill Macintire, Kentucky Heritage Council

Now, the county government in Mason County, Ky., together with the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Kentucky African-American Heritage Commission, and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, are trying to preserve Young’s birthplace and make it available to the public, while also raising awareness of his significant contribution to American history.

"Like many preservation issues, it starts off with a threat," explains Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council. Mason County Judge Executive James Gallenstein contacted the Council last year, concerned because the property on which the log cabin sits was up for sale. Up until that point, the owner had allowed tour buses full of visitors to view the cabin.

Potts adds that Mason County has a deep connection to the Underground Railroad and a lot of related tourism. "This site kind of fit into the general African-American context that people go there to experience," he says.

The cabin’s interior. Credit: Bill Macintire, Kentucky Heritage Council

The county bought the 38-acre farm for $220,000 in October. The impetus for the purchase was the possibility that the cabin would be moved by the owners to enhance the value of the property, which includes a more recently-built brick house and barn. Once Potts and the Heritage Council advised Mason County executives that some of the historic value of the cabin would be lost if it were moved, Gallenstein and the county commissioners put together a proposal to buy the land.

County Commissioner Annette Walters, who voted in support of purchasing the farm, explains that the larger brick house "would do well for a museum, a place that would provide a rest stop should this be taken as a historic site and made another one of the stops along the trail of history." Walters' hope is that any rehabilitation projects will be completed next year.

Young has been previously commemorated with a house museum in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he lived during his time as a faculty member at Wilberforce College. It was designated a national monument by President Obama in March of 2013.

Today the cabin is part of a larger 38-acre property, recently purchased by Mason County. Credit: Bill Macintire, Kentucky Heritage Council

Currently, Potts says, the Heritage Council and the county are looking for funding opportunities to rehabilitate the property and make it amenable to visitors. There’s also a larger push underway nationally to have Colonel Young posthumously promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, spearheaded by the National Coalition of Black Veteran Organizations and the international African-American fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.

"Recognition in the national eye to preserve his birthplace is, I think, timely," Potts says, adding, "I can’t stress how excited we were that in these tight financial times, the Mason County Fiscal Court was willing to spend this kind of money." It's an endeavor as remarkable as Young himself.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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