Sunday, February 11, 2018

Alexander T. Augusta: Standing Up to Discrimination

The people that seem to get the most attention during Black History Month are those who took a stand against injustice, prejudice, and discrimination. Whether we look to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, or John Lewis, they all made a difference and paved a way so others would have a smoother ride.

However, too many African American figures from the past have been forgotten or pushed to the margins of history. One such man is Alexander T. Augusta. Born free in 1825 in Norfolk, Virginia, Augusta learned the barber's trade and practiced in Baltimore. He was denied the opportunity to study medicine at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, but fortunately received some preliminary tutoring from a white doctor, which only increased his desire to learn. His exposure to medicine only made him crave more knowledge, so he moved to Toronto, where he was accepted into Trinity Medical College, earned his master's degree, and graduated in 1856.

Augusta practiced in Canada until the Emancipation Proclamation officially opened the U.S. army to accept black men. Augusta wrote to the War Department in Washington D.C., and offered his services for a regiment of black troops. He passed a thorough examination and was commissioned as a major on April 4, 1863. He worked examining black soldiers in Washington and then was appointed to the 7th USCI. However, he spent most of his service on detached duty working the Washington and Baltimore hospitals and contraband camps.

On one occasion Augusta was violently mobbed in Baltimore for just wearing his officer's uniform. In another incident a white subordinate officer raised a kerfuffle over having to serve under Augusta. But another incident that I came across seemed like something from the mid-twentieth century's Civil Rights Movement.

In a letter written by Augusta on January 20, 1865, to Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, the doctor protested an incident that he, his wife, and a female friend experienced on train. He penned, "I have the honor to lay before you a disability that the colored people have to labor under in traveling between this City [Baltimore] and Washington, which I am of the opinion if you will be kind enough to call the attention of the President of the Balt[imore] and Ohio [Railroad] to, will be removed."

Augusta explained that although the railroad company charges black people the same fair as whites, blacks are "subject to insults" and are forced into a car where they are unpleasantly exposed to smoking passengers. Augusta protested that "It makes no difference how respectable a colored lady may be; how disagreeable smoking may be to her; or how ill she might be, the employees about the depot will not permit her to enter any other car, and should she by chance get into another and is found there, she is rudely thrust out."

Using a prime example that happened just that very day, Augusta made a strong case. His wife and her friend after buying tickets had entered a car, but were told to move to the front car by an employee of the railroad and where they encountered thick smoke. The ladies attempted to open the window to get some fresh air and for doing so were verbally abuse by "two rough white men." Augusta "appealed to the ticket agent," who claimed to have nothing to do with the passenger cars. Augusta then went up the chain of command and spoke to the superintendent of the cars, who said the smoking car was the only one "colored persons could ride in." Augusta also protested to the conductor, who referred him to complain to the president of the railroad.

Augusta stated that he was petitioning to General Wallace due to the unfair practice that an officer of the United States and his family and friends should not be subjected to. He wrote that he could not carry his business elsewhere, because all of the railroads did the same. He also claimed that black passengers were often not allowed to buy through tickets to New York forcing them to stay over in Philadelphia at extra expense. And, also that policemen threw black people unfamiliar with the travel regulations out of the depot if they showed up at the wrong hours. Augusta was afraid that "a serious difficulty may occur" if these outages continued. He politely closed: "Hoping General, you will use your good offices to remove these unjust rules."

It would be three more years until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, and still longer for equal public accommodations to become a reality for African Americans. However, it took individuals such as Alexander T. Augusta to first stand up and draw attention to issues that were seemingly out of sight to those who were not affected. Much respect goes to men and women like Augusta who sought to correcting wrongs by demanding rights.

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