TRINITY COLLEGE ARCHIVES
Crossing Borders and Finding Success Despite Racial Discrimination
Alexander Thomas Augusta: Surgeon and Steward to the Black Community
The quest for access to education is a common theme in historic and contemporary immigration stories. This object is a list of the 1854-1855 lecture attendees at Trinity Medical College. It illuminates the majority of these students who traveled across municipal and regional lines in pursuit of higher education. Migrating from the United States, one student Alexander Thomas Augusta, was an African-American man who crossed national lines to access education and escape racial tensions in the United States that prevented him from receiving the education he craved.
Page from the 1854-1855 Trinity Medical College Annual Calendar. Alexander Thomas Augusta (outlined in red) is listed as a student who attended. Photo: Trinity College Archives, F1015, Faculty of Medicine Fonds (copied from the original at the University of Toronto Archives).
Northern Bound & Life in the Ward
Unlike many Blacks born into slavery, Augusta was born free in 1825 in Norfolk, Virginia. As a free Black man who also possessed the ability to read, migration was easier for him than for most Blacks during this era. He migrated to Maryland then to Philadelphia in search of apprenticeships and education. However, there were certain lines that Augusta did not cross as easily simply because of his race. When some American medical schools discovered that Augusta was Black, they rejected him. In response to this prejudice, Augusta journeyed north to attend Trinity Medical College, University of Toronto in 1850.
At this time a strong Black community was developing in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward. Former runaway slaves from the “Underground Railroad” and free Blacks formed one of Canada’s few integrated neighbourhoods. Blacks in this area were active in fighting racial discrimination in Canada and America. When Augusta finished his Bachelor of Medicine in 1856, he became a key figure in the Ward. He operated a medical practice and supported Blacks through the creation of the Provincial Association for the Education and Elevation of Coloured People, an organization that offered lectures and donated school supplies.
Return to the United States
During the Civil War period, Augusta wanted to return to the United States to support Black Union soldiers. In 1863 he wrote a letter to President Lincoln offering his medical expertise, writing “I would like to be in a position where I can be of use to my race.” Racist military attitudes initially barred Augusta from service, but he was eventually appointed regimental surgeon of the 7th U.S. Colored Troops. Besides being one of the few Black Civil War surgeons, Augusta was the first African-American to become a faculty member at an American medical school. Today, Augusta’s body is interred in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honours.
Portrait of Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta. Location and Date Unknown. Photo: http://livinghistory.med.utoronto.ca/people/alexander-thomas-augusta
Augusta’s life is an example of the complex migration of Blacks who accessed opportunities beyond geographic and racial boundaries. While migration is an option, it is not always a realistic solution to education barriers. Like Augusta, who educated Blacks in the Ward, current education initiatives must unlock the barriers of racial prejudices. In 2015 the University of Toronto committed to the collection of race-based data in order to address racial disparities. This marks another step in removing education barriers and journeying toward accessible education for all. This calendar offers a historical glimpse into migration stories, and illuminates the larger context of migration for the purpose of education.
Kendra Campbell is a candidate in the Master of Information (Archives & Records Management) and the Master of Museum Studies programs. She holds an Honours Double Major B.A. in Communications and in History with a focus on Blacks in Canada. Her professional interests include decolonizing museum practices and exploring inclusion strategies. In the 1960s, Kendra’s family migrated from the Caribbean in search of educational opportunities, which she has fully taken advantage of in Toronto.
Augusta’s life is an example of the complex migration of Blacks who accessed opportunities, crossing borders and finding success despite racial discrimination.