Of the 12,000 surgeons who served during the Civil War, only 14 were African-Americans. Seven worked in The Contraband Hospital, which is now a teaching hospital at Howard University.
During the Civil War, some 40,000 slaves sought freedom in D.C., according to Jill Newmark, exhibition specialist for the National Library of Medicine. She spoke last week at Twinbrook Library as part of a Black History Month program sponsored in cooperation with Montgomery County Department of Public Libraries and the Montgomery County Historical Society.
The District was a desired place to flee to because in April 1862, the Compensated Emancipation Act had freed slaves there. But while they may have been free, they weren’t welcome at the District’s whites-only hospitals.
Therefore, tents were sent up in a swampy part of Washington, which became a blacks-only facility known as Camp Barker. It was fenced in so that slave owners outside the District couldn’t enter and grab their former slaves.
A smallpox outbreak throughout the District forced the U.S. Army to move the hospital and add a special section for whites suffering from the highly contagious disease.
The new hospital was called Contraband Hospital. Contraband was the term used in those days for escaped slaves or those who were part of the Union forces.
Newmark pieced what information she could find from government documents, personal correspondence and pension records to paint a grim picture of life at the hospital.
By the end of 1863, 15,000 people had been treated at the hospital. The patients and staff dealt with limited medical supplies, dirty water that was not a part of the public water system, a too-small staff and living conditions that contributed to the spreading of diseases, Newmark said.
Conditions at the camp “were very challenging for the both the staff and patients,” she said. “It was very clear that the conditions contributed to the (poor) health of the residents, but despite these conditions, the camp was the best option.”
The staff consisted of commissioned military personnel, civilians and volunteers. Some laborers at the camp stayed on to work after being treated there, she said.
In those days, nurses were more caregivers than medical personal. It was their job to tend to the patient’s needs and cook and clean laundry and bedding. Even surgeons had extra responsibilities and had to order supplies and hire and fire the staff along with their medical duties.
At first, all the doctors were white. Then, Alexander Augusta, an African-American surgeon trained in Canada, was brought in. He had moved to Toronto for his education after realizing no medical schools in America would accept him.
Upon graduation, Augusta, the first African-American officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, stating he “would like to be in a position where I can be of use to my race,” Newark said.
Augusta’s appointment began a shift that soon changed Contraband Hospital, with more and more black doctors being hired, Newark told the sparse audience at Twinbrook Library.
One listener, JoAnn Henry of Silver Spring, called the one-hour presentation “an eye opener,” particularly because African-Americans rose to become surgeons and run hospitals. She said she was impressed at the role some AfricanAmericans played back then.
As their roles grew, more and more black doctors and nurses began working at Contraband Hospital, she said.
However, while African-Americans were accepted as doctors at this hospital, “there were no black surgeons that served in white hospitals,” of which there were about 25 at this time, Newmark said.
Also assigned to Contraband Hospital was William Powell Jr., a surgeon. A free-born from Massachusetts, Powell was not liked and was accused of drinking too much and neglecting his duties, Newmark said. When he left the hospital, Powell moved to England for fear of being captured and forced into slavery.
Contraband Hospital, which also was known as Freeman Hospital, moved several times, eventually obtaining a good water supply and growing to 600 beds.
In 1868, six years after it was first used to treated African-Americans, the hospital was moved to Howard University, but it wasn’t until 1961 that the hospital was transferred to Howard University.