Alpheus W. Tucker, MD

Biography of Alpheus W. Tucker:

Alpheus W. Tucker was born in Detroit in 1844 and died in January 1880. He attended school in Detroit and moved to Toledo, Ohio in 1860 to continue his education at Oberlin Collegiate Institute (later Oberlin College). He transitioned from Toledo to Oberlin’s prep school in 1861. In October 1863, he presented himself at the University of Michigan Medical Department seeking to matriculate. Students were required to attend four didactic lecturers per day from October until March. On the second lecture of the day, Dr. Tucker was met with jeers from students already seated for the lecture. In order to quell the disorder in the classroom, Alpheus was asked to leave. Although he left the lecture, he continued to attend classes until a week later when Professor Ford informed him that objections of the students compelled him to ask Alpheus to leave the University entirely. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1863 or 1864 and enrolled at the Iowa College of Physicians and Surgeons. Tucker completed his degree at Keokuk in the winter/summer semester of 1865, with a thesis on yellow fever.

Rather than mention his harsh treatment in the lecture hall, Alpheus instead focused on the larger issue of African American access to tax-supported public education. According to the Michigan Constitutions (of 1835 and 1850), the taxes paid by Michiganians included an allotment for public education, though many individual public schools continued to refuse entry to black taxpayers. African Americans and their allies struggled to establish, municipalize, and desegregate public primary and secondary schools for black children in the decades prior to the Civil War. Alpheus Tucker addressed the issue as it applied to higher education and also the conflicting message of the government’s call for medically-educated black men. “It has often been said by our enemies that the colored man is only fit to be a barber, or a waiter, and that he has no aspiration above that. Is this the way to attest it, by shutting the door of your public institutions in his face? When Government sees fit to appoint colored men educated abroad to the army, surely our Professors at home ought to be equally competent to fit them for such positions here.”

Alpheus Tucker was one of 13 African American men who served as surgeons during the Civil War. He served at the Contraband Hospital in Washington, D.C. and stayed in Washington to practice medicine after the war.

As part of the University of Michigan’s 2017 bicentennial, we have already begun to celebrate moments in U-M history when we advanced scholarship, shaped and improved lives, secured notable victories, and otherwise contributed to the betterment of humanity. One reason we celebrate our “first” female, African American, foreign, or minority students is because they represent milestones in overcoming color, gender, and national barriers. Equally or more important, these persons remind us that prior to their admission others of their background were not present or were denied entry to the academic community in Ann Arbor. Alpheus Tucker’s short time at U-M reminds us that these “firsts” do not imply acceptance, tolerance, or the conclusion of inequality. While we observe two hundred years of the achievements of students, professors, staff, and administrators, our future improvements will depend in part on the recognition and review of our failures, missteps, and shortcomings.

Had Alpheus Tucker graduated from U-M, we would now be celebrating his presence here. He rose to achievement from modest beginnings. He was a successful doctor who contributed to medical care in the nation’s capital during and after wartime. He was part of a delegation that sought racial equality in our national medical society and he did these things with an institutional and societal deck stacked against him.

For more information, see pages 6-10 of http://clements.umich.edu/Quarto/Quarto%2046_FallWinter,%202016.pdf