Alexander T. Augusta was a man of many firsts. Among 13 known African Americans that served as surgeons during the American Civil War, Augusta was the first commissioned medical officer in the Union Army. He would later become the first Black surgeon to lead a hospital in the U.S. and the first African American to serve on the faculty of a medical school in the U.S. He was also the first Black professor of medicine in the U.S.
He made great strides in medicine while combatting the challenges faced by African Americans. Before the Civil war, most doctors learned medicine by apprenticeship. Things started to change in the early 1800s. James McCune Smith became the first African American to obtain a medical degree in 1837 after graduating from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Other African Americans including Augusta would follow in McCune’s footsteps, obtaining degrees and practicing medicine but not without experiencing racism and white violence.
Augusta was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1825 to free African-American parents but moved to Baltimore, Maryland to work as a barber while pursuing a medical education. He had learned to read and write despite state laws prohibiting the education of Blacks and wanted to become a doctor. He applied to the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, but the school denied his application due to what he called a “prejudice of color”.
Getting married to a Native American woman named Mary O. Burgoin and later realizing that no American college will accept him because of his race, he traveled to Canada with his wife in 1850. There, he enrolled at Toronto’s Trinity College and after six years, he earned a degree in medicine. He was appointed head of the Toronto City Hospital and led an industrial school. While in Toronto, he also spoke out against racial injustices there, becoming president of the Association for the Education of Colored People of Canada.
Augusta later went to Washington, D.C., and wrote President Abraham Lincoln, offering his services as a surgeon for the Union army. His overall aim was to help the Union army while also supporting Black soldiers. President Lincoln gave Augusta a Presidential commission in the Union Army in October 1862. He then received a major’s commission as surgeon for African-American troops on April 4, 1863. This made him the United States Army’s first African-American physician (of a total of eight) and its highest-ranking African-American officer at the time.
His pay was however lower than that of white privates and so he wrote Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson who solved his pay issue. Then his struggles for being a Black surgeon began. It is documented that decades before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Augusta did the same in the “whites only” section of a Washington D.C. streetcar. While dressed in his Union officer’s uniform, he was physically removed from the streetcar and beaten.
His white assistants, who were also surgeons, later raised issues about being subordinate to a Black officer. Thus, President Lincoln placed Augusta in charge of the Freedman’s Hospital at Camp Barker near Washington, D.C.
By the end of the war in 1865, Augusta was made a lieutenant colonel and three years later when Howard Medical College opened, he was the only African American on its original faculty. Augusta was there until 1877. Even though he was denied recognition as a physician by the American Medical Association, his contributions to health and medicine can never be overlooked. He surely paved the way for African Americans in military medicine and used his own circumstances to help other African Americans improve their conditions.
Augusta died in Washington in 1890. Historians say he was the first Black officer to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.