The Life & Times of Grandison Harris

Real History With Some Elements of Fiction

Episode II: Onward to Augusta


by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States


Link for Citation Purposes:


Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Many scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts.  Whenever possible, every attempt has been made to maintain the integrity of the events as they have been reported. 


Episode II: Onward to Augusta

1852 was an important year for Augusta.


In that year on January 9th, fifty-one Negroes, who were emancipated by the will of John Houghton, immigrated to Liberia on a steamer.


On the 22nd of July, Paul a popular Negro ice cream vendor, made up a rhyme as he sold ice cream, saying, "I'll serve you at this very time, a monstrous glass for one small dime."  


Then on November 27th of 1852, E.C. Tinsley, a Negro, brought a petition so that the Negro Springfield Baptist Church could hold meetings for 10 to 15 evenings until ten o’clock at night. That was a triumph for the colored community.


In 1852, I found myself on an auction block in Augusta and sold away from my family.  I was purchased for $700 dollars by a well-dressed Buckra wearing a Derby hat. 'Bukra' is a Negro term for white man. 


I entered the Greek Revival-style building of the Medical College of Georgia as a slave who served as a janitor and porter.


I was allowed to travel back and forth by train from Georgia to South Carolina to see my family.


Even though I was a slave, I could read and write.  But my greatest gift from God came from my wife Rachael and my first son, Grandison Harris Jr.   My first son was born in Franklin County, Arkansas in 1856.  So were my other two older sons, Bird and Asbury, they were born in Arkansas as well.  


I saw a dispensary at the medical college, full of medicines in bottles of every shape and color.  I went into the teaching laboratories and rubbed shoulders with professional white men of the highest stripe.  I worked in the dissection room and was given instruction in the study of all aspects of the human body.  I worked as a janitor at the medical college, picking up the human slop and spittle of tobacco from white men; I also threw away portions of human cadavers.  I was not the only slave who worked for the college.  I made acquaintance with the Negro slaves, Joe, King, Peter, Jackson, John, and Edmund. These men taught me all they knew about my duties as one of the college’s servants.


During the War of Northern Aggression, I worked with the Confederate Hospital Corps. When the war ended in 1865, I continued to work for the college.


I was owned by seven faculty members of the institution.  My masters paid me eight dollars a month.  I was very lucky and well cared for as a slave. Six months after my stay on the grounds of the college, I received blankets to keep me warm. I received a room. I received fourteen dollars and forty-seven cents worth of whiskey.


The college purchased a number of slaves long before they hired me to do a few odd jobs around the medical college.  Again, there was Joe, King, and Peter, and Jackson, John, and Edmund.


I was also granted the right to leave the grounds of the medical college and visit my wife and child. It was not long before the medical college brought my wife, Rachael, and my son Grandison Harris Jr. so that I would not be alone.   As I recall, in 1858, the cost for the Dean of the college to buy my wife and child in Charleston exceeded $1300. That was a large sum in the mid to late 1850s.


As slaves in Augusta, we lived together at one address.  My wife worked in the city as a cook in the Freedman’s hospital while my son attended a colored school. I later had two more sons and a few daughters.  


Before I arrived, the medical college’s student doctors might be punished in one court for the lack of skill in dissection when botching an operation, and in another court, the same individual might also be punished for trying to obtain that skill by dissection.


I was the only Negro who sat in the college lecture halls alongside white students.  I quickly grasped a profound understanding of the flesh and bones of the human body.


I was not only a janitor cleaning up the spilled organs of corpses alongside spots of chewing tobacco, not as a property of the Medical College of Georgia, but I also served as a porter.


I knew what some of the slaves owned by the college were doing for the white doctors and students. It had not been long in Augusta, Georgia that started to hear rumors about what

white doctors did all across the country to coloreds. I learned that Negroes in church, in alleys, and in pool halls whispered about the Needle Men. 


An elder man in tattered slave clothing sporting a long liquor bottle once said to me, 


“Son, you got to know there are doctors in the night who stick us colored in the arms with needles.” 


I pretended to be ignorant, so as to keep the man talking. The man took a swig of liquor then I said to him,




The man filled with his brew staggered backward a bit and backed into a small pile of manure.


 “In places around, you can’t go out at night alone.  You gots to keep your children inside. In those places a Negro gotta fear the Black Bottle Men.”


I smiled and thought that the man’s head was confused by his strong drink.


“Old timer, are you just making these things up.”


The man’s eyes seem to glow like a blaze of fire.


“No son, the Black Bottle Men? They’s poison yuh and yuh never again be found.”


When I attended my medical classes with those white students, I learned about how the bottle men might kill an unsuspecting Negro with an injection of cyanide or the herb cascara and milk of magnesia.


“Beware of that medical school you is working in. If yeh got children, they takes them away and uses them for some satanic end,” said the old man.


I laughed.


I did not tell the old Negro, but I knew everything that the medical college was doing. I did not tell the man that I was more than a simple janitor.


I did not tell the old Negro that I knew of many slaves who, when they died, were sold to the medical school for the various experiments and dissections. I did not tell him that in that basement were the dead bodies of Negro women, children, and mostly Negro men.  Only the poorest of the poorest whites were used in dissection at the college. Before the Civil War, medical colleges received slaves.  Sometimes cadavers resulted from the taking of deceased prisoners.  At other times, colored men who were killed, while working on the Augusta railroad, were delivered to the college.  At other times, Negroes who died at the Medical College of Georgia or the Freedman’s Hospital were used for dissection studies. Most of the time, it was colored men taken from Cedar Grove; the colored cemetery. 


The model school basement served as the place where corpses and their bloody body parts went when the college had little use for them.


Now at the middle college, I sometimes did unquestionable things to feed my wife and growing family than to work like a pig in some rice fields. I also enjoyed the fact that the high-class Negroes in the city respected me.


My salary from the medical college made me secure.  In the summer, I sported an expensive suit and a Panama straw hat. In the winter, I had five suits and walked the Negro section of town in a derby hat.  Every Sunday, I afforded a rose on my lapel.  I also made sure that my wife and child had the finest meats, like duck and mullet, and the best clothing that money could buy; I gave my wife a Balmoral petticoat, several blouses, a Bonaparte hat, and red and blue stockings and American Duchess boats. 


When war came, I continued to work at the medical college and helped to treat wounded Confederate soldiers. 


“Boy, is you a Negro doctor?” He asked.


I shuddered a bit at the Confederate gentlemen’s question. 


“No sir.”


He grinned.


“Then why you so good with medicine?”


I lightly chuckled.


“They let me learn medicine along with the whites.”


His face seemed to turn a bit red.




I was a slave and I realized that as a sort of Negro doctor, I could take care of my wife and children doing what I was doing than working in a rice field.


“Sir, I am not sure. I do what my masters tell me.”


I saw how his eyes sank in his head and how he looked down at the pant legs of his tattered confederate outfit.


“Well, I don’t mine a colored doctor if I don’t loose my leg.


My heart pounded.  He called me a colored doctor.  I later took on that mantle.  I now considered myself a colored doctor.


“Sir, you will not lose your leg.”


Now Negroes in Georgia experienced quite a few good things and a few bad things before 1860.  In 1853, ninety-five free colored persons left Georgia and Tennessee for Liberia in Africa.   In that same year the Augusta Canal, completed by colored convicts and free labored Negroes, continued to supply more than fourteen thousand horsepower of electricity to factories. Years later, convicts would enlarge that canal with the help of 200 Chinese immigrants.


Then in 1858, Blind Tom, a nine-year old colored boy of Harris County, Georgia was able to play any tune once he heard it.  On November 24 of 1859, a grand jury desired that Negroes stop dressing in an expensive manner.  


Then, on January 20, 1861, Georgia succeeded with the rest of the South. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, gave his “Cornerstone” speech in Savannah, Georgia in which he said in part: “Regarding the Confederacy, rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition." The Confederate States of America he added "is the first government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature and the ordination of Providence."


Then in that same year, something happened that could only have been caused by God. Some of the Negroes say that the whites in the North decided that slavery was a bad thing.  I remembered how many years ago, the white men and the colored, dressed in blue, came and freed all the coloreds from slavery by our masters. Those Yankees who called themselves Republicans, came in and occupied the city and made the southern white men respect all of the colored.  That was a result of the War of Northern Aggression.



Laws were written after 1865 that freed me, my family, and all slaves. 


On June 1st, of that same year, the on corner of Ellis Street and Campbell Street, a free colored school was opened in Augusta, Georgia.  Three days later, officiated by Mr. W.P. Russell, five-hundred colored children attended the school.  A day later, on June 15th, a Negro by the name of Josiah Thompson became the president of the “Colored Young Men’s Benevolent Association.”


Benevolent Associations were organizations composed of men and women who pooled their monies together.  It was a type of insurance.  If a person of a given association went on hard times due to a lack of money or as a result of a loss of property, a Benevolent Association might provide food, clothing, or shelter to that man or woman and their family.


Augusta, colored folks built many of their own institutions.  They went to the colored church because white and colored just did not mix.  Schools, while somewhat supported by city government, also had the support of the Negro community.  But we had our own blacksmiths who knew how to tame metal to create just about anything for a horse or a plow.  We Negroes had our own barbers, farmers, tailors and the like.


For a time, the coloreds got along with the whites, and my family even prospered.



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