Monday, June 29, 2015

Historian Sheds Light With African American Medical Contributions

by Bobby Jones, Staff Photojournalist, 2-3-15

On Feb. 7 [2015], The Surratts House Museum hosted an education tour revealing the plight and contributions of the African American medical community during the American Civil War, entitled “Within These Walls; African American Surgeons and Nurses,” who served during the War.

Narrated by, Jill Newmark, exhibition specialist in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, (NLM) National Institutes of Health (NIH) Bethesda, the exhibition sheds light on the African American medical surgeons and nurses who treated the soldiers and slaves who fled to Contraband Hospital Camp of 1862 which would eventually become what is known at the Howard University Hospital in 1975.

In a capacity-filled room of Surratts House, audience members listened attentatively as Newmark revealed the history of a hospital camp that once set on swamp land in northwest Washington, D.C.

According to Newmark, the camp served thousands of escaped slaves and blacks soldiers during the American Civil War. The hospital was primarily staffed with African American surgeons and nurses.

“The story of African Americans in the Civil War is an often neglected part of Civil War history and there’s been very little that’s been written on the subject,” said Newmark, who started her research in 2008.

“Histories in Civil War medicine often overlook the participation and contributions that African Americans made in 1861 to 1865. In fact, there are few personal accounts of black surgeons, nurses or hospital workers that exist. Materials … are often hidden among the thousands of Civil War records that are contained in depositories throughout the country,” added Newmark a historian and curator.

“This presentation is about the African American men and women who served as medical personnel during the Civil War and treated civilians and black soldiers at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C.”

She noted that the Army used the term contraband to describe fugitive slaves who made their way across union lines during that time to describe African American’s whose status was undefined. “So with the increasing number of contraband it caused a dilemma for the army, because they needed to help the men, women and children find food, shelter and medical care. So eventually the camp became a safe haven for the former slaves.”

Newmark described the condition, treatment, work environment, living conditions and hospital care of the patients through personal correspondence, pension records and other documents of the surgeons, nurses and medical staff. “Their voices would have been lost had it not been for these records.”

She further explained “The civilians shared the hospital with soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops and the living conditions at the camp were poor and unhealthy due to a lack of needed supplies.”

Newmark noted when Alexander T. Augusta was appointment of the first African American surgeon-in-charge of the hospital in May 1863, it became a game changer. She noted it was the beginning of blacks fulfilling leadership roles over their white contemporaries.

“African American surgeons and assistant surgeons were commissioned as military officers or private physicians under contract with the army, and their appointments represented the first time blacks served in positions of authority at a hospital in the United States,” said Newmark. The other doctors of note included Alexander T. Augusta, Anderson R. Abbott, John H. Rapier, Jr., William P. Powell, Jr., William B. Ellis, Charles B. Purvis, and Alpheus W. Tucker. “Nurses during that period were more like care givers, than actual trained nurses,” said Newmark.

“I’ve been researching this since 2008 and I’m still finding new things,” said Newmark, who’s currently writing a book about African American Civil War soldiers.

“It’s going to take a little while longer, because I just came across some new information that might expand my book. My main goal is to get the information out there for everyone. It’s been hidden for all these years and it shouldn’t be.”

Newmark has sponsored several exhibitions at the National Library of Medicine which include, Binding wounds, Pushing Boundaries of African Americans in Civil War Medicine, African Americans: Academic Surgeons and Within These Walls; African American Surgeons and Nurses who served during the War. Among her published articles include, Face to Face with History and Opening Doors: African American Surgeons among others.

“Being that I’m in health care, and my mom was a nurse also, the history of nursing and African Americans piques my interest,” said Pamela Banks, a nurse since 1986 with Capital Caring and Hospices in Prince George’s County.

“I was particularly interested in the military pension records of the surgeons and nurses because my great, great, great grandfather was a Civil War soldier with the U.S. Colored Troop 100,” Banks added. “What I learned from this exhibit is that we mattered then and we matter now. I’m just truly happy that there is attention to the roles of African Americans, be it through Civil War onto the present.”



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