April 8, 2012

In March 1825 a son was born to a free African American couple in Norfolk. He must have been a very bright child but his parents knew there was almost no way, regardless of whether he was free or slave, to receive an education. It was against the law.

So young Alexander Thomas Augusta learned by stealth. And, eventually, after several moves and setbacks, he became the first black surgeon – and highest-ranking black officer – to serve the Union during the Civil War.

From Norfolk?

I was struck by that when I saw Augusta’s picture, a brief history about him and his surgical case at the Hampton History Museum. It’s part of a traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point,” sponsored by The Virginia Historical Association.

It’s an amazing story of perseverance in the face of daunting obstacles.

One historian writes that Augusta got his first education at an illegal Episcopal school in Norfolk. It may have been at Christ Church where, in 1853, a woman and her daughter for arrested for running a school for 25 black children, according to the book Norfolk: The First Four Centuries.

During the 1940s, Augusta moved to Baltimore where he worked part-time as a barber while studying medicine with private tutors. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he was denied admittance to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

He continued his studies in California and Philadelphia. He ended up in Canada and in 1856 received a bachelor of medicine degree from Trinity Medical College in Toronto. He served as hospital director there until he returned to the states six years later.

There was a war going on and he was going to be part of it.

In January 1863 Augusta wrote to President Lincoln offering his medical services for one of the black regiments then being formed. He got his wishes: surgeon in 7th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, with the rank of major. His regiment was involved in several engagements during the war, including Beaufort, S.C. But his biggest battles had to do with the color of his skin.

It was unheard at the time for white officers to report to black superiors, and there were many complaints, including a letter to the president from white assistants complaining of this “unexpected, unusual and most unpleasant relationship in which we have been placed.”

One rainy day in Washington he was rushing to testify at a court martial across town and hailed a trolley. As he would write to the judge advocate, the conductor “informed me that I must ride in the front. . . as it was against the rules for colored persons to ride inside.

“I told him I could not ride on the front, and he said I should not ride at all. He then ejected me from the platform, and at the same time gave orders to the driver to go on. I have therefore been compelled to walk the distance in the mud and rain. . . .”

He must have been furious because he wrote to a Massachusetts enator who read his letter to the Senate and eventually the laws were changed. “And now,” a colleague rejoiced, “the colored people of Washington enjoy the privilege of riding in the street when and where they like.”

He would win other battles, including a dispute over pay. Even with the rank of major he’d been paid the same as black enlisted soldiers. He was proud of his rank and adamant about wearing his uniform in public, even though it once got him attacked on a train to Baltimore.

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

In March 1865, Augusta was brevetted lieutenant colonel of volunteers, “for faithful and meritorious service.”

Following the war, Augusta served as assistant surgeon at the Freedman’s Hospital in Savannah. Later, he worked for ten years on the medical faculty at Howard University – the first African American to such a position.

There’d be another first: When he died at the age of 65 in 1890 he became the first black officer to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo: Norfolk native Alexander Augusta in uniform during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.