Black History: Did you know Alexander Augusta?

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Dr. Alexander Augusta (courtesy National Park Service)

Abraham Lincoln’s views regarding blacks, slavery, and civil rights for non-whites were not static but evolved over time. He was never a supporter of slavery, but wasn’t willing to sacrifice the Union to completely abolish it – he took a gradual, measured stance toward its elimination. The Emancipation Proclamation was more symbolic than fact at its writing and did not apply to all states.

Lincoln was slow to recognize the possible effectiveness of enlisting black troops and allowing blacks into the medical corps. Frederick Douglass tried to persuade him and failed, particularly regarding black officers – Martin Delany did convince Lincoln and was the first. (see ) There were local black militias, but the first official black regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, under a white officer, Robert Gould Shaw in January 1863.

There were black nurses as early as the battle of Shiloh, but not under the official auspices of the Sanitary Commission.

Alexander Augusta  (March 8, 1825 – December 21, 1890) was born free in Norfolk, Virginia. He was full of industry and optimism as a boy and learned to cut hair from his father. He got white customers to teach him the basics of reading, though it was illegal to do so at the time in Virginia. When he was of age, he moved north to Baltimore (Maryland was still a slave state) to ply his barber’s trade. He read widely, practically anything he could get his hands on, moved to Philadelphia, and finally applied to the University of Pennsylvania for medical training. He was rejected, solely on the basis of his race. His application attracted the attention of a Quaker faculty member, who agreed to teach Alexander privately. After a time, he returned to Baltimore.

At age twenty-two, Alexander married Mary O. Burgoin. “It is not certain whether she was Black, Native American, or Mulatto, and there are no known images of her. She was listed as “colored” in one Canadian census and was noted as being a Native American in two historical accounts. The two would enjoy a strong partnership that endured to the end of Alexander’s life.” – National Park Service

Trinity College Toronto 1856

Letter to Lincoln

Alexander soon became frustrated with the bonds of prejudice, moving again to California with the gold rush (1852 California census), then to Toronto. After opening an apothecary, he was accepted at Trinity College, Toronto’s medical school in 1852, graduating in 1856. Alexander was consistently one of their most brilliant students. Trinity was a newly opened Anglican-based college, and progressive in admitting people of color, and eventually, women. Dr. Augusta, as Alexander could now style himself, established a wide practice among people of all races, and was appointed head of Toronto City Hospital.

Mary matched her husband’s drive by becoming one of just a few women of color who owned and operated a business. She called it the “New Fancy Dry Goods and Dress Making Establishment.” Her business was located in Toronto’s first working-class suburb, an area that attracted many newcomers, including a large population of formerly enslaved people. She also advertised in the “Provincial Freeman” newspaper that was “committed to ending discrimination and encouraged opportunities and education”, particularly for those who had recently arrived in Canada. This connection makes it likely that Mary, just like her husband, wanted to support her community, and people like themselves who were looking for a chance to succeed.

Alexander took a deep interest in helping others of his race up from the depths of poverty and prejudice. He became president of the Association for the Education of Colored People in Canada, publicly opposed candidates for parliament that championed prejudice and even left his all-black church as a way of pushing integration in Canada.

Despite his success in Canada, Dr. Augusta never forgot his home country, the United States. When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, he talked with Mary and decided to offer his services to his native country. He wrote to Abraham Lincoln and Edwin Stanton, arguing that the time had come to allow black medical personnel in the army.

Letter to Lincoln

Toronto Canada West Jan 7 1863
To His Excellency Abraham Lincoln
President of the U.S.
Having seen that it is intended to garrison the U.S. forts with colored troops, I beg leave to
apply to you for an appointment as surgeon to some of the coloured regiments, or as a physician
to some of the depots of “freedmen.” I was compelled to leave my native country, and come to
this on account of prejudice against colour, for the purpose of obtaining a knowledge of my
profession, and having accomplished that object, at one of the principle educational institutions
of this Province, I am now prepared to practice it and would like to be in a position where I can
be of use to my race.
If you will take the matter into favorable consideration, I am given satisfactory references as to
character and qualification from some of the most distinguished members of the profession in
this city where I have been in practice for about six years.
I remain sir
Yours very respectfully
A.T. Augusta, Bachelor of Medicine, Trinity College, Toronto

Lincoln acted to grant Dr. Augusta an appointment for a medical examination with the appropriate military medical establishment. However, on arrival, he was told there had “been a mistake”, that his appointment was recalled due to his “being a person of color”, and that his residency in Canada for the prior decade made him a British citizen – so joining the army would violate the neutrality of Great Britain in the Civil War.

Dr. Augusta again wrote to Lincoln, and the Army medical board reversed itself. On April 14, 1863, at age 38, Augusta was commissioned as a surgeon with the rank of Major in the Union Army with the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was the first of eight black doctors to hold a commission in the Union Army. Initially, his salary was set at $169 a month, the standard for an army surgeon. Upon discovering he was black, the paymaster refused to pay him more than $7 per month, the pay rate for a black enlisted man.

“He found the inequity of pay for African American soldiers unacceptable and wrote a letter of complaint to Senator Henry Wilson (MA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. Augusta’s case was soon rectified, but black enlisted men had to wait until June 1864 when Congress finally established equal pay for U.S. soldiers, regardless of color.”

National Park Service
Alexander Augusta as Lt. Colonel

Dr. Augusta was not through making history or being the center of controversy, however. Assigned to Camp Stanton, he was working with a team of white surgeons – and in their opinion, it was humiliating and awkward, since he outranked them! Several wrote to the War Department, complaining and asking that he be removed. However, one white surgeon stood up for him, based on his record, stating that “surgeon Augusta has worked indefatigably while at Camp Stanton.”

Campbell Hospital, aka Camp Barker

To appease the white medical establishment, Dr. Augusta was transferred – but yet again made history. Instead of a demotion, he was promoted and made head of Camp Barker, also known as Campbell or Freedman’s Hospital, the first African American to be in charge of a military hospital, at Boundary Street NW (now Florida Avenue NW) between 5th Street NW and 6th Street NW in Washington D.C., a 900-bed facility. This hospital was almost the site of the Lincoln assassination – but Dr. Augusta had moved on by then.

Rosa Parks was not the first

Before his departure from Washington D. C., Dr. Augusta forced Congress to take note of the treatment of black people in the district. When riding a streetcar, the conductor ordered Dr. Augusta to leave his seat, and ride on the outside platform of the car, because he was black. The incident occurred in a driving rainstorm, and Dr. Augusta was in full military uniform, showing his rank as Lt. Colonel. When Dr. Augusta refused, he was physically removed and forced off the car into the muddy street. The passengers made catcalls about him being in uniform.

My position as an officer of the United States, entitles me to wear the insignia of my office, and if I am either afraid or ashamed to wear them, anywhere, I am not fit to hold my commission.”

Alexander Augusta, 1864

Not one to take such an offense quietly, Dr. Augusta wrote a letter to the judge advocate, who forwarded it to Senator Charles Sumner, a staunch abolitionist. Sumner was later beaten almost to death on the Senate floor by a southern senator, unrelated to Dr. Augusta’s request. A bill was introduced, and passed in May 1865, one hundred years before the Civil Rights act, and one hundred ninety years before Rosa Parks’ arrest, making discrimination on Washington D. C. street cars illegal.

Camp Belger, 37th National Guard, Baltimore, 1865 courtesy Library of Congress

Dr. Augusta was transferred in 1865 to Camp Belger, near Baltimore. Invited to a reception at the White House, on February 23, 1865, Dr. Augusta and his wife Mary accepted. Introduced to the President and First Lady by Dr. Anderson Abbott, he said that they could not have “created more surprise if we had been dropped down upon them through the skylight.” Heads turned, both friendly and hostile. Their presence in the East Room made news across the country.

After the war, Dr. Augusta moved to Savannah, Georgia, serving for a few years as assistant surgeon responsible for the Lincoln Freedmen’s Hospital, before returning to Washington D. C. in private practice. In 1869, he became the first black medical professor as a part of the newly formed Howard University Medical College. Denied entrance to the Washington D. C. Medical Association, he founded the National Medical Society, open to all races.

Finally, rounding out his list of “firsts”, Dr. Augusta died in 1890, and became the first black officer buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

His wife Mary entered a convent in Baltimore after his death, according to the census, and faded from memory.

Fenison, J. (2009, March 29). Alexander T. Augusta (1825-1890).

Morias, The History of the Negro in Medicine New York, 1968