Alexander Thomas Augusta | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Alexander Thomas Augusta

Alexander Thomas Augusta, physician, army officer, hospital administrator, professor, rights activist (born 9 March 1825 in Norfolk, Virginia; died 21 December 1890 in Washington, D.C.). Augusta fought anti-Black discrimination throughout his life. In 1853, he moved to Toronto, where he studied medicine at Trinity College. He opened a drugstore and surgical practice in the city and was the president of the Association for the Education of Coloured People in Canada. Augusta returned to the United States during the American Civil War and was the first Black officer in the Union army. In 1865, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, becoming the army’s highest-ranking Black officer at the time. Augusta was the first Black hospital administrator and Black medical professor in the United States. He also fought racism and segregation in Washington, D.C., where he founded the National Medical Society of the District of Columbia.

Alexander Thomas Augusta

Early Life

Augusta was the son of free Black parents. As a youth, he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he worked as a barber to pay for a medical education, a childhood dream of his. When the University of Pennsylvania refused to accept him because of his race, a member of the faculty taught him privately. In 1847, he married Mary O. Burgoin. Although no known pictures of her exist, she has been variously described as Black, Native American or mixed race.


In 1853, Augusta and his wife moved to Toronto, where he enrolled in the medical faculty at Trinity College. (Trinity had opened the previous year; it federated with the University of Toronto in 1904.) Augusta completed his medical training in 1856 but for reasons unknown did not receive his Bachelor of Medicine degree (equivalent to an MD) until 1860.

Some sources claim that Augusta headed the Toronto General Hospital, but no existing records show that he even worked there. This is likely due to a misunderstanding over his work at the House of Industry, founded in 1837 to house the city’s disadvantaged people, then referred to as the “deserving poor.” Some sources refer to the House of Industry as the Toronto City Hospital and subsequently confused it with Toronto General Hospital. In fact, Augusta did not hold a senior role at the House of Industry but worked occasionally as an assistant medical attendant.

While he was still a medical student, Augusta opened a drugstore on Yonge Street, which also advertised tooth extractions and the “application of leeches.” Once he completed his training, he opened a private practice as a surgeon across the street from the drug store. Augusta was also president of the Association for the Education of Coloured People in Canada, which provided books and school supplies to Black children. (See also Black History in Canada until 1900; Racial Segregation of Black Students in Canadian Schools.)

Civil War

On 1 January 1863, during the American Civil War (1861–65), President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, allowing Black men to serve in the forces. A week later, Augusta wrote to the president asking that he be appointed to one of the new “colored” regiments. He then returned to the United States and joined the Union army. On 14 April 1863, Augusta was commissioned as a major and became head surgeon of the 7th Regiment Infantry, US Colored Troops. He was the first of eight Black officers to serve during the war.

Despite being a commissioned officer and a doctor, his pay of seven dollars a month was less than that of a white private. A personal appeal to Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts resulted in the proper salary for his rank. White surgeons who worked for Augusta also complained about being subordinate to a Black officer.

As a result, in 1863 Lincoln appointed him as head of the Freedmen’s Hospital in northwest Washington, D.C. The hospital had been founded in 1862 and was the first to provide medical care to former slaves. This appointment made Augusta the first Black hospital administrator in the United States.

While wearing his country’s uniform, Augusta was refused entry to a Washington streetcar by the conductor, who told him he had to ride outside. When Augusta attempted to enter the tram, the conductor pulled him outside, forcing him to walk. After the incident, he wrote a letter to the judge advocate protesting this treatment. A year later, Congress ruled that all streetcars in Washington had to be desegregated.

On another occasion when in uniform, Augusta was attacked on a Baltimore train. He immediately wrote a letter that was published in several newspapers. In it, he declared his right “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.”

In 1865, Augusta was promoted to lieutenant-colonel, making him the highest-ranking Black officer in the US army at the time. He retired from the army in 1866.

Later Life

After leaving the army, Augusta was briefly in charge of the Lincoln Freedmen’s Hospital in Savannah, Georgia, before he returned to Washington to set up a private practice. In 1868, the Freedmen’s Hospital became a teaching hospital for Howard University Medical School. Howard University had been founded the previous year as a university for the higher education of Black students. Augusta became one of the school’s first six faculty members and the first Black medical professor in the country. He remained there until 1877.

Even after the Civil War ended, Augusta and other Blacks continued to be forced to travel in the segregated section of trains. He testified before a Congressional Committee on behalf of Kate Brown, a patient who had been forcibly removed from a “whites only” railcar of the Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown Railroad Company headed for Washington. The case went to the Supreme Court. In 1873, the court enforced earlier direction that the railroad company had to make all its cars equally available to all passengers, regardless of skin colour. Brown also received $1,500 in compensation.

Augusta continued to work at Freedman’s Hospital and served at the Smallpox Hospital. Despite his qualifications and experience, the Medical Association of the District of Columbia continued to deny him and other Black doctors admission to their group. In response, he cofounded the National Medical Society of the District of Columbia in 1870, which was open to all medical doctors.

Despite continued racism and discrimination, Augusta encouraged Black medical students to pursue their careers, which contributed directly to the early success of Howard University Medical School. He died at his home in Washington in 1890, just four days before Christmas 1890. Augusta was the first Black officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.