Alexander Thomas Augusta was born in Norfolk, Virginia on March 8, 1825, to free African American parents. Still in his youth Augusta made his way to Baltimore, Maryland and worked as a barber. While working in Baltimore he taught himself how to read and write. Augusta began pursuing an education in the field of medicine with private tutors and next he applied for admission to the University of Pennsylvania, but the university cited inadequate preparation and rejected him. Though access was initially denied, a professor William Gibson was impressed with Augusta and taught him privately.
Augusta persisted in his education is education and determined to become a physician, he travelled to California and earned funds to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor. On January 12, 1847 he married Baltimore native Mary O. Burgoin.
Concerned that he would not be allowed to enrolled in medical school in the United States, and by 1850 Augusta and his wife moved to Toronto, Canada where he was accepted by the Medical College at the University of Toronto. In 1856 he received his Bachelors of Medicine degree. Augusta established a successful private practice in Toronto, Canada. In 1862 Dr. Augusta returned to America at the beginning of the American civil war. In 1863 Augusta was pressed into service, becoming the first black surgeon in the U.S. Army and on April 14, 1863, he was commissioned as a major in the Seventh U.S. Colored Infantry (highest ranking black officer). Soon two white assistants, also surgeons complained to President Abraham Lincoln about being subordinated to a black officer. Lincoln then appointed Augusta as Executive-in-Chief of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington D.C., Augusta was paid $7 a month, however, was lower then that of whites privates. He soon wrote Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson for payroll assistance. He successfully argued that as a medical examiner he deserved more than $7.00 per month. Senator Wilson agreed and pressured the Army paymaster to apply the appropriate pay rate for his rank.
Augusta also experienced white violence when he was mobbed in Baltimore for publicly wearing his officer’s uniform. On February 1, 1864, he wrote a letter to Advocate and Judge Captain C. W. Clippington about discrimination against African Americans passengers on the streetcars of Washington, D.C.:
“Sir: I have the honor to report that I have been obstructed in getting to the court this morning by the conductor of car No. 32, of the Fourteenth Street line of the city railway.
I started from my lodgings to go to the hospital I formerly had charge of to get some notes of the case I was to give evidence in, and hailed the car at the corner of Fourteenth and I streets. It was stopped for me and when I attempted to enter the conductor pulled me back, and informed me that I must ride on the front with the driver as it was against the rules for colored persons to ride inside. I told him, I would 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, and have also been delayed in my attendance upon the court. I therefore most respectfully request that the offender may be arrested and brought to punishment.”
In March of 1865, Augusta received the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, at the time the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. military. After begin discharge out the military on October 13, 1866, he continued his private practice in Washington D.C., and played a key role in establishing the Howard University Medical School in Washington, were he remained for several years. He retired form Howard University in 1877 and continued to practice medicine until his death at the age 65, on December 21, 1890.