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.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Black Barbers in 1859 Cumberland, Maryland

Last night, while looking through October 1859 newspapers on the Library of Congress, "Chronicling America" website, I came across the October 20 edition of the Cumberland, Maryland, Civilian and Telegraph. This Opposition (former Whig) paper had a couple of interesting articles pertaining to John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid, which is not surprising due to its proximity to the event both chronologically and geographically.

However, I was struck most by the amazing advertisement shown above. Now, if you've been reading "My Random Thoughts" for a while, you know that black barbers advertising during the antebellum years was not uncommon by the number of ads I've shared on this forum. But, I don't believe that I've ever come across one that included a rhyming poem. Fascinating!

The rhyme covers just about every facet of barbering and clientele pleasing one could imagine. Focusing on the barbers' skills, availability, and affordability, the ad is an original and refreshing take on mid-nineteenth century marketing. 

Wanting to confirm these men were African Americans, as were the vast majority of the barbers at this time in the Upper South, I ran a search on for the 1860 census. I was disappointed that I did not get any clear hits for either last name. Not to be thwarted, I searched the complete 151 page listing for Cumberland.

The first one I found was actually the last listed in the advertisement. It appears to be Nick, or perhaps, Mich, for Michael, Francis, a thirty-six year old black barber. Also in the Francis household was wife Maranda, 29; sons John and Nicholas, twelve and one respectively; and daughters Mary and Helen, six and four respectively. Mr. Francis is not shown as owning any real estate or personal property of value, and all members were the family were natives of Maryland.

Francis's near neighbor was apparently his barber business partner, William Cornsh, which appears to be misspelled in the census. It looks like the census taker attempted a phonetic spelling and came up with Cornilt, or something close to that. Cornsh was listed as a thirty-two year old black barber, who lived with his wife Catherine, a twenty-six year old black woman. Like Mr. Francis, Mr. Cornsh is not shown with any real estate or personal property wealth.

In my search through Cumberland's manuscript census, I came across several other black barbers. I also found one white native barber, which is quite unusual. If barbers are listed as white they were usually immigrants from Italy, France, or Ireland. Barbering was occupation that was viewed as being beneath most native whites.

I wonder what happened to these men during the Civil War. Did they continue cutting hair and shaving beards or did they feel a need to join up and fights when they got the opportunity? I wish I had the time to find out. I'm sure they both have interesting life stories. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

When it comes to books, I'm not usually an impulse buyer. I try to read reviews, see who published the book, learn more about the author if I am unfamiliar with him or her, add it to my wish list and then hope the price drops. 

That was not the case last evening, where Ed Ayers was our February speaker at the Petersburg Civil War Roundtable. I was familiar with Ayers's previous work and had actually met him about nine years ago in Richmond at a history conference. At that time I had him sign a copy of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America. I had enjoyed the book, as well as several others on Southern history that he had published and I appreciated the fact that when I met him he was so down-to-earth and humble. So, when I was lining up folks for the 2018 Petersburg Roundtable slate of speakers, I thought I'd ask and he accepted. 

The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the follow up book to In the Presence of Mine Enemies and continues the stories of Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania from Gettysburg through Reconstruction. The stories of these two counties come from the documents that make up Ayers's "Valley of the Shadow Project" digital history initiative that he developed when he was at the University of Virginia. I had planned on purchasing the book at some point, but after hearing his talk last evening, I decided to buy one and have him sign it on the spot. I'm really looking forward to diving into this one and reading Ayers's grounds-eye-view approach to the people that lived the war and the reunification of the nation.

I also try not to purchase a book solely on its title. Authors and publishers can sometimes be tricky. The title can sometimes make one think the book will cover certain issues only to find that is not the case. However, Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing by Christopher Hager, was a title too good to pass on when I came across it. 

Enslaved African Americans were often not allowed to read and write. Although there are a number of exceptions, and a couple of the slave states did not make literacy illegal, most owners wanted to control their human property as much as possible and keeping the illiterate helped toward that end. Writing was an act of freedom and expression that those few enslaved who could do it enjoyed. When emancipation came others who had been deprived sought to learn. However, expressing oneself in writing during Reconstruction could be extremely dangerous. I'm excited to read what voices of the enslaved and freedmen Hager uncovers and how he analyzes this previously overlooked historical subject.

I am currently reading The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act by Alice Elizabeth Malavasic. This intriguing book looks into the relationship of four Southern senators, who were all in some sense the proteges of John C. Calhoun, and who worked to legislate slavery's movement into the western territories before the Civil War. 

Robert M.T. Hunter, James Murray Mason, Andrew Pickens Butler, and David Rice Atchison shared a living space on F Street in Washington D.C. (thus the "mess" in the title) and developed a strong friendship due to their like-mindedness. Hunter and Mason from Virginia, Butler from South Carolina, and Atchison from Missouri, all played the high stakes political games that helped bring about the eventual election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of eleven slave states, and the outbreak of the war. The Slave Power conspiracy is one that has been kicked about by historians and this book looks to add another piece toward better understanding the contentious mid-1850s.

Few events helped spark the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement as did the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 in Mississippi. The injustice of this crime has been the subject of a number of books and documentaries, but few have actually looked into who Emmett Till actually was. The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson is self described as "part detective story and part political history," and apparently uncovers previously unused sources to tell the story of this young man and his impact of human rights. 

I've read and found Tyson's previous books Radio Free Dixie and Blood Done Sign My Name both to be alarmingly eye-opening and informative reads. I'm fairly certain that this one will follow suit.

Don't Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived Through It by Susannah J. Ural promises to be another of the growing grounds-eye-view Civil War books. I truly appreciate the historians who make the war real by showing its effect on people by using their own words. Doing so helps cut out so much "hind-sight history" and nostalgia. Here one gets to read the thoughts of those who lived it. This one looks to be right up my reading interest alley.