Black History: Special Delivery!!
Alexander Augusta (1825 – 1890) was born in Norfolk Virginia. He began his medical studies under the supervision of private tutors. He then applied for admission at the University of Pennsylvania but was denied. Still, a Professor William Gibson, who was very impressed with Augusta began teaching him privately. In 1847, Augusta married Native American woman, Mary O. Burgoin. In 1856 he was admitted to the College Of The University of Toronto. He would eventually receive his Bachelors of Medicine degree from Trinity Medical College.
Augusta went on to establish a thriving private practice in Canada. He was also hired as the head of Toronto City Hospital. Just prior to the start of the Civil War, he returned to the U.S. and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was the first of eight black officers to be commissioned during the Civil War and was the first black surgeon in the army. He was commissioned as a major with the 7th U.S. Colored Troops. At that time, Augusta was the highest ranking black officer. His high ranking angered some of the white medical personnel who reported to him. Those individuals wrote President Lincoln and complained. Lincoln then forced Augusta to take on a leadership role at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Augusta was the first African American to lead Freedman’s Hospital.
Though he was a doctor and surgeon, Augusta was paid the same rate ($7.00 per month) as an enlisted black soldier (which was lower than white soldiers who held the rank of private). He sought assistance from Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson to have his pay increased. Senator Wilson advocated for Augusta with the Army pay master for him to receive the proper pay commensurate with his rank. In 1865, he was given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and his pay was increased accordingly. Augusta was the first African American to reach the rank of Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army.
Victimized by racial violence, Augusta was mobbed in Baltimore, Maryland for wearing his officer’s uniform in public. He also wrote a letter to his commanding general to protest being segregated on public trains and requesting protection for himself and other black military officers. He discharged from the Army in 1866 and became the head of Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia until 1868. He then returned to private in Washington D.C. He also began teaching in the Howard University Medical Department; making him the first black professor there. Denied recognition as a physician by the American Medical Association, Augusta still remained committed to helping Howard’s new medical program be successful.
Augusta retired from Howard in 1877. He continued to practice medicine until he died in 1890. He was the first black officer to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.