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Class 5: Success and Failure in Pushing the Boundaries


Some African American physicians used their Civil War experience as a springboard for pushing forward an agenda of equality. Alexander Augusta not only demanded his rights on street cars, but also helped found Howard Medical School and fought to have black physicians admitted to the American Medical Association. African Americans who served as nurses in the war no doubt gained the respect of those they worked with, and perhaps translated that experience into salaried work after the war. Acceptance of black women as professional nurses would come slowly, however, as opportunities for formal training remained minimal for decades. Just as African American troops received inferior medical care during the war, the Freedmen's bureau hospitals failed to live up to their initial expectations, as a persistent provider of health care for southern blacks.


Augusta, Alexander. "The Late Outrage Upon Surgeon Augusta in Baltimore." Christian Recorder, May 30, 1863.

Butts, H. M. "Alexander Thomas Augusta: Physician, Teacher and Human Rights Activist." Journal of the National Medical Association 97 (2005): 106-109.

Foster, Gaines M. "The Limitations of Federal Health Care for Freedmen, 1862-1868." Journal of Southern History 48 (1982): 349-372.

Haynes, Douglas M. "Policing the Social Boundaries of the American Medical Association (AMA), 1847-1870." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60 (2005): 170-195.

Taylor, Susie King. A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs: Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U. S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Boston: S. K. Taylor 1902. Reprint, Edited by Patricia W. Romero. Introduction by Willie Lee Rose. Princeton N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1988, 25-72. Available online at (accessed on 10/01/2010).

Congressional Globe, 38th Cong., 1st Sess., 553-555 (1864). Available online at // (accessed on 10/01/2010).

Discussion Questions:

  • Why did Augusta make such a big point about where he rode on the streetcar? Why has public transportation (think Rosa Parks) been a flash point for civil rights demonstrations? Should Augusta have been so abrasive and demanding in his action on the streetcar? Southern newspapers used this story to defend keeping blacks under tight control; it made black men seem dangerous. Take unpopular sides on this question, to try to genuinely feel the fear of northerners looking at the millions of slaves just over the Mason-Dixon line and questions about their "control." Were the street car conflicts about bigger issues of social control?

  • In pushing for improved training of African American physicians, should Augusta and like-minded colleagues have emphasized founding separate segregated institutions like Howard or pushed progressive institutions to admit blacks?

  • Susie Taylor King's picture in the exhibition (from the frontispiece of her memoirs) is fairly famous; in it she looks almost like a nun. Can you think of reasons that she would have dressed this way to illustrate a memoir about being a nurse in the Civil War?

  • Why didn't the Freedmen’s Bureau Hospitals survive more than a few years after the war, when the African American need for health care was so great? Use this question to explore how the initial reform impulses of reconstruction played out in the case of health care.