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History of Medicine

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Catalyst for Change

Alexander Augusta's public presence was often controversial, but proved to be a catalyst for change.

On a rainy day in February 1864, Augusta, in full military uniform, headed to a court martial in Washington, D.C. where he was scheduled to testify. He hailed a streetcar and attempted to enter the covered seated area. The conductor informed Augusta that he would have to stand up front with the driver as was usual for black riders. When Augusta refused, he was forcibly ejected and had to walk through the rain to reach the hearing.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a noted anti-slavery supporter, was outraged after hearing of the incident. Within a week, Sumner brought a resolution before the United States Congress to abolish the exclusion of blacks from railroad privileges in the nation's capital. The resolution resulted in the desegregation of streetcars in Washington, D.C. within a year.

Sepia toned illustration of a group of men sitting in chairs forming concentric circles facing a podium of the United States Senate chamber, c. 1863. Courtesy The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
The United States Senate chamber,
c. 1863.

Courtesy The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

 Black and white photograph of Senator Charles Sumner, half-length, seated, left pose in a suit sitting in a chair.
Senator Charles Sumner, c. 1861
Courtesy Library of Congress


Black and white photograph, half-length, left pose, full face of Alexander T. Augusta, M.D. with a mustache dressed in suit and tie. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.
Alexander T. Augusta, M.D.
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

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ejection of [a] Senator from a [street] car would not bring upon this capital half the shame that the ejection of this colored officer from the car necessarily brings upon the capital…

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 Black and white photograph of a newspaper article.
On February 10, 1864, the Evening Star newspaper reported on the Senate debate of Sumner's congressional resolution to abolish segregation on streetcars in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy District of Columbia Public Library

After passage of a resolution abolishing segregation on streetcars in Washington, D.C., African Americans were free to sit in covered areas of cars.

Black and white photograph of a horse drawn streetcar. Courtesy The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Typical Washington, D.C. streetcar, c. 1880
Courtesy The Historical Society
of Washington, D.C.

Black and white photograph of several brick buildings in a row with a few people and a horse in the background. Courtesy Library of Congress.
This image of 15th and F Streets NW in Washington, D.C. was taken in 1865 near the site of Augusta's streetcar incident.
Courtesy Library of Congress

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He [Mr. Sumner] said…we had better give up railroads in this District, if we could not have them without these odious distractions. An incident like this, at this moment, was worse than a defeat in battle. Quote from The Evening

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