By Ishan Sen
Born in 1825 in Norfolk, Virginia, Alexander Augusta’s medical training began with the help of private tutors only when he had moved to Baltimore to work as a barber. Success seemed to elude him initially as his application to University of Pennsylvania was rejected. However, faculty member Professor William Gibson decided to take Augusta under his wings and offered to instruct him privately.
At the age of 31, Augusta received his Bachelor of Medicine degree from the Trinity Medical College at the University of Toronto. After six years of successful practice in Canada, Augusta returned to America in 1862 and found himself as the first Black surgeon in the U.S. Army the following year. He was commissioned as a major in the Seventh U.S. Colored Infantry albeit at a meager pay of $7 per month.
As the then-highest ranking Black officer, Augusta’s petition to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson regarding the low remuneration resulted in the Senator pressurizing the Army paymaster in Baltimore for raising Augusta’s pay to the level appropriate for commissioned officers. In 1865, Augusta was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel – the first Black person ever to attain this echelon.
In spite of his respectable rank and established name, Augusta was no alien to discrimination and racial prejudices. He was compelled to transfer to Freedmen’s Hospital at Camp Barker near Washington, D.C. when two white assistant surgeons complained to President Lincoln about working under a Black officer. On another occasion, he was mobbed by whites in Baltimore for publicly wearing his officer uniform.
That was hardly the end to Augusta’s ordeals. He was a victim to segregation on trains and was stirred enough to write a letter to his commanding general protesting the treatment against him and requesting the protection of the President for other Black soldiers and families.
Discharged of service in 1866, Augusta assumed charge of the Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia, and remained there for two years. He then focused on private practice at Washington, D.C. and taught as the first Black professor of medicine at the newly founded Medical College in Howard University. His contribution in making Howard University an early success remains unquestionable.
Augusta continued to practice medicine despite being denied acknowledgement as a doctor by the American Medical Association. He passed away in 1890 and became the first Black officer to be buried with full military honors at the Arlington National Cemetery.